September 6, 2010; Source: IRIN News | Aid workers with charities and nongovernmental agencies in flood-ravaged Pakistan are running up against superstitions and other unhealthy practices that do little to purify water but instead make people sick after drinking it. For example, in Punjab, a holy man who claims to have mystical powers, is much in demand to say verses over containers of water brought to him by people who believe he can make it safe to drink.

Elsewhere, people have been seen filtering water through muslin cloth, again in the mistaken notion it will prevent them from coming down with severe diarrhea. However, according to Paul Garwood, communications officer for the World Health Organization, some 4.4 million people received health care (13 percent for acute diarrhea) between July 29 and August 30. Overcoming superstitions and unsafe purification methods is a major challenge for aid agencies in parts of the country where several feet of water left from the flood has contaminated drinking water. One man said he had no choice but to filter water through cloth, believing it would make it drinkable. “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. Aid workers have distributed chlorine tablets, but they go unused because people don’t like the taste. With waterborne diseases on the rise, aid workers are scrambling to find ways to get clean water to affected parts of the country or implement purification methods, such as inexpensively filtering up to 15 liters of day by using two clay pots. Khalid Zaheer, a Pakastani scholar, says religious leaders have to warn people of the danger of saying verses over water. “Local clerics help educate people about this, especially as in rural areas they have a lot of influence.”—Bruce Trachtenberg