If you need evidence that the situation in Puerto Rico is still dire, look no further than the reports this week of islanders who have been forced to turn to water mixed with raw sewage for hydration and hygiene.
It's been almost a month since Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, and municipal water services have still not been restored for about a third of the people on the island. Meanwhile, nearly half of the island's sewage treatment plants remain out of service, so wastewater isn't necessarily being purified as it runs through the island's water system.
In desperation, Puerto Ricans are bathing and washing their clothes in rivers that have raw sewage pouring into them, the Associated Press reported, exposing them to bacteria like Leptospira, which causes leptospirosis. Some Puerto Ricans are even drinking from condemned wells and Superfund hazardous waste sites, which contain potentially dangerous chemicals.
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Let's be clear: This would not be happening unless people were desperate and had no other options.
Thousands of Federal Emergency Management Agency personnel and 14,000 members of the military are on the ground right now distributing bottled water, food, and other supplies. But many Puerto Ricans' basic needs — like clean water — are still not being met.
The water crisis is directly related to, and reinforced by, the electricity problem. More than 80 percent of the island's electricity customers still have no access to power after the electrical grid was wiped out in the storm. As my Vox colleagues Eliza Barclay and Brian Resnick explained, "No electricity means no power to pump water into homes, no water to bathe or flush toilets." Electricity is needed to clean and distribute water too.
Even islanders who do have access to running water are being warned by the territory's water utility to boil the water or use chlorine tablets first, since many water treatment plants are out of commission. But of course, with most Puerto Ricans without power in their homes, it's not so easy to boil water.
As of October 18, the government had restored water services for 69 percent of people on the island — a number thatFood & Water Watch. FEMA has provided 23.6 million liters of water since September 20 — but that's less than 10 percent of the drinking water needs for the territory, according to a new CNN report, and an even smaller fraction of their consider cooking and hygiene needs. They've also passed out water purification tablets and mobile filtration systems. But the efforts aren't enough, CNN said:
Lines for water — potable or not — are long in many parts of the island. Rumors of contamination are rampant. Even as some taps turn back on, residents worry about drinking from faucets, which sputter and, in some locations, produce hazy liquid.
"This will be the most challenging environmental response after a hurricane that our country has ever seen," Judith Enck, an Environmental Protection Agency administrator who worked in Puerto Rico under President Obama, told CBS News on Tuesday.