Blog Patrick Smeets on WASH emergency response in Equatorial Guinea

Looking out my window through the palm trees at the ocean, it’s hard to realise that on 7 March the city of Bata in Equatorial Guinea was hit by a terrible disaster. A munition depot in the city exploded destroying and damaging houses in a radius up to 5 kilometers around the location. 107 people lost their lives and 700 people were injured. The area was covered in dust and remains of ammunition. Now that most of the ammunition has been cleared and houses are being restored, concerns about the effect of the blast on the water safety are rising. Many people in the area rely on shallow dug wells and the dust and debris from the explosion may easily reach these wells. DSS (Dutch Surge Support) is a humanitarian branch of the Netherlands Enterprise Agency of Dutch Government that sends out Dutch water experts to provide support in humanitarian emergency missions. DSS asked me to join UNICEF and support the government of Equatorial Guinea to investigate the effect of the blast on water safety in the area. Veolia Foundation, a volunteer programme of Veolia, also participates in the mission. After several delays, on 28 May I finally got on a flight to EG with a suitcase full of laboratory equipment and a head full of questions.

Malabo, the capital of EG and its international airport are located on an island, and there had been no connection to Bata on the main land for two months. So I was glad to be on the first UN flight and get to the actual location and start field work. Since then I’ve spent most of my time collecting samples from wells, rivers, taps and puddles and performing basic tests to understand the water system and identify potential contaminated places. At 30°C and 90% it feels like working in a Turkish steam bath, but people and the land are beautiful. The other day I even got fruits from these people that have so little! Now looking at the data, there seem so be some pieces that are falling into place. Today my colleagues from Veolia Foundation and the emergency coordinator from UNICEF arrive with more lab equipment will arrive. With the current information we will do more targeted and elaborate analysis of samples to see if we can determine contaminant levels. Finally we’ll also use more advanced analysis with passive samplers and LC-MS for broad scanning of contaminants in France and Microtox bioassays at KWR when I return on 18 June. So the final assessment and reporting will take all summer, before we can provide an actual assessment of health risk and recommendations on how to proceed. Despite the extreme conditions and long working days, a very rewarding and inspiring mission. Grateful that KWR allowed me to take this opportunity and thanks to all the colleagues that are supporting met with their knowledge!

This is a news item about the mission and my arrival in EG (turn on English subtitles)

Field work in the affected area, measuring water quality in the open well in the front (used for bathing only).


The building in the back is the location of the exploded munition depot at 500 m distance, the destroyed building nearby was a school, in front is the drinking water well of a house that we’re testing.