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Superstition undermining clean water messages

A girl suffers from acute water diarrhoea in Punjab. Diarrhoeal diseases are of particular concern for people affected by the floods due to limited access to safe drinking water and disrupted sanitation systems
Cette jeune fille est soignée pour de graves problèmes gastriques (WHO/Syed Haider)

From his village in the southern Punjab district of Rajanpur, a holy man believed to be endowed with mystical powers (`pir’) is frequently called upon to intone religious verses over containers of water - in the belief that this will purify them. His services are much in demand these days.

“We know water is causing sickness - but water over which words from the Holy Koran have been uttered cannot make us ill,” said Farkhanda Bibi, 65. Like many other flood victims, she had developed severe diarrhoea, but recovered, and is now anxious to keep her extended family safe.

Elsewhere in flood-affected areas of southern Punjab, people can be seen filtering water through fine, muslin cloth, convinced this will make it safe to drink. Though the worst of the floods in this area appear to be over, several feet of water have been left behind in many villages, contaminating existing sources.

“I bought fine cloth to pass the water through. We know boiling is good, but with fuel costs so high we can’t light stoves for the time required to boil the large quantities of water we consume in summer,” said Dawood Ahmed, 50, a father of four. “Besides, we have no refrigerator, so how can we cool it? There is no ice available either,” he said.

Paul Garwood, communications officer for the World Health Organization, told IRIN 4.4 million people received health care (13 percent for acute diarrhoea) between 29 July and 30 August.

“Measures to respond to waterborne diseases include the establishment of diarrhoeal treatment centres in affected parts of the country, distribution of materials that could treat 135,000 people suffering from diarrhoea, and striving to address the safe water, sanitation and hygiene challenges,” Garwood said.

How this is to be done remains a challenge. “Chlorine tablets have been distributed to people here but many refuse to use them as they dislike the taste. They prefer to simply try and filter water or say a few religious words over it - either themselves or by [bringing in] a holy man. Even some uneducated clerics perpetuate such superstitions,” said Ayaz Ali, a medical practitioner who has been seeing more and more cases of waterborne diseases.

Role for mosque leaders

“This practice of saying verses over the water serves no purpose. The water has to be cleaned to prevent illness. Local mosque prayer leaders should be involved to create awareness about this,” Mufti Muneebur Rehman, a religious scholar based in Karachi and head of the national moon-sighting committee, told IRIN.

He said the government needed to ensure people had access to safe water.

But in a situation where animal waste and sewage has mingled with standing flood water, and pipes bringing in supplies have broken, this is easier said than done.

“Getting clean water is our biggest problem,” said Riaz Uddin, 40, a shopkeeper.

Various solutions have been suggested.

Khurshid Bhatti, head of the Association of Humanitarian Development NGO based in Sindh, told IRIN: “We have developed a cheap, indigenous water filter using two clay pots through which water filters, which can clean up to 15 litres of water a day. No better solution exists given the circumstances we face.” He said the device had been in use for three years in Sindh.

Atiqur Rahman, head of the Pakistan offices of the Japan-based NGO Urban Development and Environmental Research Centre, suggested using “sand or cloth to filter the water and then boiling it.”

Mumtaz Ali Memon, in charge of relief operations for the charitable al-Khidmat Foundation, said it was installing hand pumps able to access groundwater in flood-affected areas, “though this does not solve the problem entirely”.

Ideal solutions are hard to come by, which explains why some are resorting to superstition to obtain safe water. “Awareness is needed among people. Saying a prayer over water will not clean it. Local clerics can help educate people about this, especially as in rural areas they have a lot of influence,” Khalid Zaheer, a Lahore-based religious scholar, told IRIN.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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