A week after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico’s water supply system and cut off access to safe drinking water, Jorge Antonio Sanyet Morales sipped from a stream near his home. The 61-year-old bus driver later experienced a fever and died — along with four others who drank from nearby streams, ABC News reported.
Doctors believe they died from leptospirosis, a disease carried in animal urine that has contaminated Puerto Rican waterways, according to ABC News.
Nearly a month after the hurricanes hit, around one third of the island still lacks access to clean and safe water. So now, like Morales, many desperate Puerto Ricans are drinking, bathing, and washing clothes in sewage-contaminated rivers and wells, despite the significant risk of illness.
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The 1 million Puerto Ricans struggling to find clean water now share the experience of 2.1 billion individuals around the world who lack access to safe drinking water, according the World Health Organization’s latest report.
In countries like Papua New Guinea, Angola, Kenya, and Eritrea, more than 20% of the population gets its water from untreated surface sources, like lakes and streams, the WHO reports. More than 10% of the population in 18 other countries, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, also get their water from untreated surface sources, which can be contaminated.
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About 80% of Puerto Rico is currently without electricity, further exacerbating the water crisis because home water pumps rely on electricity. Instead, some Puerto Ricans have turned to wellwater from Superfund sites — federally designated areas that contain hazardous waste linked to cancer and liver damage — which is potentially laced with chemicals. The Environmental Protection Agency has issued warnings against using water from Superfund site wells, but the lack of electricity and telecommunications complicates efforts to spread information.
Without electricity, people are also struggling to flush toilets, safely dispose of waste, keep food cool, and prevent food poisoning, Vox reports.
The EPA and Centers for Disease Control have urged people to refrain from using water from rivers, streams, or seas to drink, bathe, wash, or cook unless they boil the water for at least one minute or disinfect it with bleach.
Contaminated water and poor sanitation are linked to the transmission of various diseases, including cholera, diarrhea, dysentery, typhoid, and polio, according to the World Health Organization.
Though thousands of soldiers and Federal Emergency Management Agency workers are in Puerto Rico distributing food and bottled water, they have not delivered enough "agua potable" to supply all Puerto Ricans. Meanwhile, store shelves quickly empty as thirsty Puerto Ricans purchase all the bottles they can.