alta verapaz, guatemala

sesajal and chibut

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November 2020 Hurricanes Eta and Iota

The Alta Verapaz department of Guatemala was hit by Hurricane Eta (Category 4) on November 3rd, devastating and flooding the region for days before changing course. Less than two weeks later, on November 17th, Hurricane Iota (Category 5) swept through the same region, dumping more water on the already submerged area. In response, Solidarity Engineering and Global Response Management deployed an emergency response team to the region on November 30th.

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December 2020
Emergency Response

To provide a holistic public health response to the people affected by Hurricanes Eta and Iota, Solidarity Engineering and Global Response Management (GRM) partnered to travel to Alta Verapaz, Guatemala in December 2020. Sending a doctor, a medic, a logistician, and an engineer, this team assessed the medical, as well as the water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH), needs of Sesajal and Chibut, two indigenous communities in North Central Guatemala in the Alta Verapaz region.

Context

This region typically experiences heavy flooding approximately every 10 years, although the 2020 hurricane season resulted in uncharacteristically extreme levels of flooding. This extreme flooding caused a significant loss of infrastructure and clean water access points, and has made access to/from the villages limited. Some indigenous communities have reported neglected conditions in their communities, in particular to hurricane response measures.

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Background

There are seven natural springs in Sesajal, all of which are now submerged under floodwater. The region is located atop shallow granite bedrock, and underlying that bedrock is the Motagua Fault, an active volcanic transform fault line. These geographic factors have resulted in a significant decrease in the ability of the floodwater to recede or permeate naturally through the ground. It is expected that the area will remain flooded and endure stagnant water for 6-8 months (as of December 2020).

December 2020 WASH Assessment

  • The team distributed sixty new ceramic water filters (EcoFiltros) in Chibut, and provided trainings on the proper techniques to use and maintain the filters.

  • To assess the safety of the raw, boiled, and filtered water, the team tested for fourteen different types of physical, biological, and chemical water quality parameters. The results of the tests are described below, as well as in the WASH Assessment.

  • When they reached Sesejal, they saw that the community had been previously gifted 100 Sawyer water filters, but were not provided adequate information for how to use them. The team organized and hosted educational trainings, to ensure the filters would be used effectively.

  • Household surveys were performed to quantify the impact of the hurricanes on the previous and existing WASH infrastructure in both Sesajal and Chibut communities. 

  • And finally, to aid in a future logistics tool, the team created maps of Sesajal and Chibut with ArcGIS Collector, and overlaid drone imagery to add necessary detail and context.

Water Quality Results

In both Sesajal and Chibut, drinking water is typically sourced from rainwater harvesting, springs, and rivers (no hand-dug wells were present). During the rainy season (September to February), rainwater harvesting is by far the most common household practice in the area, with an average annual rainfall of 2871 mm (113 in) for the Alta Verapaz region. During the dry season (March to August), water is collected from a spring or river, and collection times vary by community. 

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As seen in the table below, the untreated floodwater is generally of high quality and is likely a good source of water, given proper household treatment (as of Dec 2020). All chemical parameters in the untreated floodwater are within the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines; the treated water (boiled or ceramic filter) meets all chemical, physical, and biological WHO guidelines (except pH). Note that no further chemical tests were performed on the boiled and ceramic filtered water because the raw water had no chemical contaminants. The high bacterial load of the raw floodwater was expected as it is totally untreated surface water. Biological tests were performed on floodwater treated with boiling or ceramic filters, with the results indicating that these forms of treatment are likely adequate for human consumption.

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It is important to note that ceramic filters protect against protozoa and bacteria but are not effective against viruses. Boiling is effective against protozoa, most bacteria and viruses, but there are thermotolerant bacteria (such as Giardia) that boiling cannot eliminate. Additionally, the lack of clean and sealed water storage containers indicated a need for residual protection, such as chlorination or disinfection, that cannot be provided by boiling or ceramic filters.

 

As there are no metals, no chemical contaminants, and negligible salt concentrations, the floodwater is likely an adequate raw water source that requires minimal treatment. “Likely” is used here due to the unexpected low pH, and the fact that only one iteration of biological tests wes performed.

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March 2021 Return Trip

Given the contacts and logistics established on the December 2020 trip, Solidarity Engineering plans to return in March 2021, to complete the following emergency response goals:

  1. Distribute 300 LifeStraw's, and provide sufficient training for proper maintenance

  2. Provide soap and hold hygiene promotion workshops; bring the local clinic up to hygiene standards, creating an example space for other to follow. This would include the installation of a hand sink, access to soap and keeping the area generally clean and bug-free.

  3. Install hand sinks by converting the existing rainwater collection systems into handwashing stations or use tippy taps

  4. Improvement of existing latrines and construction of new latrines; including adding ventilation, fixing roofs, replacing broken floorboards, locks, lighting, and general upkeep. This also includes identifying latrines that cannot be rehabilitated and decommission them

  5. Interview women in the community to understand the best way to manage menstruation; distribute feminine hygiene products

  6. Distribute solar lights

  7. Continue monitoring water quality by water testing using the iDip

  8. Continue monitoring water levels using drone imagery and surveys

The immediate destruction combined with the long-term extreme flooding of the two November 2020 hurricanes have left Alta Verapaz in dire need of help. The floodwater is not expected to recede entirely for at least 6-8 months, in which time, media coverage - and international assistance - will decline. The hundreds of people living in these communities must not be forgotten about. As the floodwaters recede, more issues with WASH and healthcare are expected to emerge. And it will be necessary for international humanitarian organizations, such as Solidarity Engineering, to work together with local governments and communities, to provide aid. The initial trip made by Solidarity Engineering and GRM in December 2020 was only the start. To be a part of our ongoing work and the next March 2021 trip, consider donating!