World Water Day: What Water Means to People Affected By Disasters

World Water Day: What Water Means to People Affected By Disasters

The following is an interview with Abril Paez, Humanitarian Operations Director at CADENA International. It has been edited for clarity.

This World Water Day—celebrated every year on March 22—the conversation is about what water means to you. To commemorate this day, Airlink is highlighting the work of one of its partners who has been active in providing clean water in emergencies over the last decade

Airlink has recently supported travel for CADENA volunteers to Colombia, Guatemala, and Honduras to respond to and help communities recover from Hurricanes Eta & Iota, and has worked with the organization on a wide variety of projects since beginning partnership in 2016. CADENA volunteers also provide medical assistance, solar lights, and other life-saving and life-sustaining services to disaster-affected communities around the world, guided by tikkun olam, the Jewish principle that encourages social action and community service. Learn more at

Bethany Holland: Part of this year’s World Water Campaign is to provide a look into programs for our donors and airline partners, who are keen to know more about the organizations within Airlink’s nonprofit network that they’ve potentially supported. With that said, can you share your thoughts on the role partnerships have in successful humanitarian response efforts?

Abril Paez: Collaborative participation in humanitarian aid and emergency response is essential. Partnerships to develop programs for the recovery of a community after a disaster occurs are necessary to guarantee an effective recovery. The achievement of the objectives and goals in solidarity and collaboration adds efforts to obtain better results for humanitarian aid and emergency response. With the help of partners like Airlink we are able to achieve faster, better and more humanitarian aid to those who need it the most. 

BH: This year’s theme for World Water Day is “Valuing Water.” The UN has shared that, “water means different things to different people in different settings.” And they call out the importance of sharing the different ways that water benefits us all as means to value and safeguard this resource for everyone – including people affected by emergencies. Related to this theme, what does water mean to you?

AP: Water is a fundamental element for the good physical and mental development of human beings. It is also an essential part of natural ecosystems and the regulation of the climate.

Water is necessary to sustain biodiversity, a key element to face climate change: global warming increases, torrential rains, and floods that cause many more disasters. Ecosystems are changing and putting flora and fauna at risk of disappearing; the increases in temperatures lead to melting the glaciers and, with it, the sea level rises. Also, the oceans are warming, causing stronger and more destructive storms and hurricanes. For CADENA, access to clean water is part of human dignity. 

BH: How has this inspired CADENA’s work on water-related issues?

AP: At CADENA, we are always looking for the causes and factors that led a certain community or group to lack the response capacity when facing a potential disaster. Our humanitarian interventions are planned with this in mind. In our interventions in response to a disaster, we always take water filters with our Go Team. This is a secure way to provide people with access to clean and drinkable water. After providing the affected community with what it needs to survive the disaster (first aid, shelter, food security, water filters and solar lamps) we seek to understand the conditions that led to it. Throughout different countries we intend to provide vulnerable communities with clean water, installing community based filters. 

BH: Per the UN, “water means different things to different people in different settings.” CADENA responds in a variety of settings, what approaches do you use to ensure responses are meeting a community’s specific needs?

AP: CADENA’s response to emergencies and disasters is characterized by first, security for all essential livelihoods. This is why we take water filters in all our emergency interventions— they are easy to use and can provide a family of 5 people for several years, with the aim of guaranteeing access to clean water for the population, especially children and women. When a disaster occurs such as a flood or severe rains, sometimes the water pipes collapse and the drinking water service is interrupted. Water filters, in addition to giving access to such an important part of life, help in the prevention of diseases caused by the lack of clean water in the course of the event. We have a community-based diagnostic that lets us create a humanitarian intervention where water filters are distributed and installed in a way that their needs are truly met. 

BH: What challenges can arise in implementing clean water initiatives? How has COVID-19 impacted this?

AP: One of the main obstacles that the WASH sector faces during a disaster is not even the one that manifests after the catastrophic event. Most societies in the world are still struggling to overcome the social and economic gaps regarding access to drinking water and sanitation.

When any event occurs, we tend to focus our efforts on the most vulnerable population. Now, the conditions that were there before the earthquake, flood, or tsunami, might not be far worse than the ones we find during the humanitarian assistance effort. Consider that, even before, they may not have even been part of the city planning or infrastructure projects.

Moreover, the biggest challenge that comes up when a sector, like WASH, is intervening is coordinating with all the different stakeholders, so the actions that are implemented by your organization do not conflict with the ones from other actors. It is important to gather all the information about the territory you are in, but also to share and consult with other organizations and authorities, otherwise, it is very possible that your efforts and solutions implemented might be in vain.

It is important to acknowledge that what the disaster generates is a step back in terms of lack of equality for a vulnerable population; it also puts a priority on providing something that previously wasn’t there. How do you provide someone with the tools and information if they have never experienced it before? This comes with a lot of consequences and we have to consider the existing customs and practices that the population has regarding the consumption or usage of water.

BH: Your organization has a long history of bringing clean water to people around the world. How do you see CADENA leading the movement to increase access to clean water in the future?  

AP: We hope that our organization will be able to provide clean water in the most vulnerable communities in the world with the help of many actors such as governments, enterprises, other NGOs, and anyone else who wants to guarantee clean water as a human right. 

Want to help Airlink and its partners bring clean water to people around the world every day? 
Consider making a donation to support the Airlink network’s ongoing long-term recovery programs and capacity-building projects, as well as ensuring a quick response to new emergencies as they arise.
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Bethany Holland

Bethany Holland is the Humanitarian Programs Manager at Airlink. Her role includes managing and expanding Airlink's NGO partnerships, building Airlink's capacity in disaster-prone regions around the world, and coordinating the mobilization of passengers and cargo in support of humanitarian emergencies around the world.

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