Morocco is reeling in the aftermath of an earthquake that has killed more than 2,600 people. The survivors, pulled from the dust and rubble, are in urgent need of shelter, food and medical help.
But one crucial priority stands out: to keep earthquake survivors alive, they need access to clean drinking water and good sanitation.
When large-scale earthquakes occur, they often cause widespread damage to water networks, sewers and basic hygiene infrastructure. Mud and debris can bury critical infrastructure, paralyzing entire water systems for months.
The lack of these services increases the number of infections and drives up maternal mortality. It also fuels water-borne diseases such as cholera, typhoid and diarrhea, which devastate communities and kill children under five at a rate 20 times that of war.
As a former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights to clean water and sanitation, this is déjà vu for me.
From Nepal to Haiti, and from Pakistan to Turkey and Syria, I have seen similar scenarios play out time and time again.
In many of these crises, there have been reports of earthquake survivors covered in dirt and unable to shower and disinfect their wounds. Toilets, if available, are often scarce in overcrowded emergency shelters. Without access to sanitary facilities, people have no choice but to defecate outside. Women and girls are forced to manage their periods without privacy or access to sanitary products.
So, what can we do?
First and foremost, humanitarian teams working in the earthquake-affected parts of Morocco must act quickly to install temporary latrines, provide clean drinking water and provide households with items such as collection drums, filters and purification tablets. Hospitals should be equipped with portable handwashing stations, disinfectants and essential hygiene supplies.
Secondly, we need to look at our own communities and ensure that we are adequately prepared for any future earthquakes. According to the US Geological Survey, we can expect an average of 16 major earthquakes of magnitude 7 or greater each year. An estimated 62 percent of us live in countries with significant seismic hazard.
Simply put, many, if not most, of us won’t be able to avoid earthquakes, but we can learn from past mistakes.
That starts with making our countries as self-reliant and resilient as possible in the face of natural disasters, reducing crucial wait times for humanitarian teams and giving earthquake victims the best chance of survival.
We can also learn from countries around the world that are already investing in solutions. For example, after the devastating earthquake in Japan in 2011, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare made the renewal and seismic resistance of water infrastructure a top priority, installing ductile pipes that can withstand large shocks. In the United States, Los Angeles, which lies on a major fault line, has followed suit.
In New Zealand, scientists, government officials and Wellington’s water network, learning from the sanitation challenges they faced during the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, have joined forces to launch an emergency sanitation plan that anticipates a major water failure. wastewater system. The plan aims to make homes self-sufficient for seven days after a crisis, until emergency teams can restore services. They have also started testing compostable toilets that can be used in a disaster.
Other good practices include installing earthquake-resistant water sources, if possible, at schools and community centers, which can serve as makeshift shelters in the event of a disaster.
Ensuring that water and sanitation facilities are earthquake-resistant should not be seen as an extravagance, but as a crucial investment in sustainable development. This is especially the case because the costs of inaction are high and an extensive crisis recovery could cripple economic growth. For reference, a 6.7 magnitude earthquake in 1994 cost Los Angeles $40 million in repairs.
The UN High-level Experts and Leaders Panel on Water and Disasters has developed financing strategies to help governments proactively replace aging infrastructure.
Most importantly, governments must act now to include water, sanitation and hygiene in emergency response plans and long-term investments and planning. This starts with tapping into the expertise of utilities and regulators, exploring new technology and innovations from the private sector, gathering data and analysis on earthquake hazards from researchers, and working with NGOs on crisis strategies.
The earthquake in Morocco once again reminds us of the urgent responsibility that governments have to their citizens when it comes to upholding their human rights. We must give people the tools to survive, achieve resilience and recovery.
We can start with a drop of preparation.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.