When disaster strikes, it's often the small things that seem to go by the wayside. The bottle of laundry detergent you just bought for today's batch of laundry, diapers to clothe the baby and the family's toothpaste and toothbrushes become secondary considerations in the midst of an earthquake, flash-flood or fire.
And strange as it sounds, so does potable water, which is often jeopardized during a natural disaster. After an emergency, community water sources and purification systems are often at risk for contamination either by polluted water sources (such as in the case of a flood) or other bacteria.
That's where Procter & Gamble (P&G) often comes in. The company best known for household and personal care products like Tide, Charmin and Oral-B toothbrushes is gaining notoriety for its forward-thinking approach to disaster relief.
Last month, after a series of earthquakes and aftershocks devastated large portions of infrastructure in Kathmandu, Nepal, P&G's Disaster Relief team was on the ground to help organize relief. With the support of non-governmental organizations and international brand partners, P&G has been distributing water purification packets to families, as well as monetary funds to relief organizations at the head of Nepal's many-pronged response program.
Portable drinking water purification methods have been around for ages. In the 1940s, tablets developed by Harvard University became a regular part of a U.S. soldier's mess kit. This additive, which was made of a chlorine compound, was a primitive version of the purification sources used today for turbid or contaminated drinking water.
P&G's Children's Safe Drinking Water Program, however, takes this innovation one step further by making purification packets easily dispensable in disaster areas. The packet, which contains chlorine and other essential ingredients, can be added to turbid water and produces potable water within minutes.
"The packets are actually an excellent way to remove that contamination," explains Allison Tummon-Kamphuis, who leads P&G's Children's Safe Drinking Water Program. "There is a visual signal that your water has been cleaned, and also it makes it drinkable by killing the bacteria and viruses."
According to the World Health Organization, 2.2 million deaths occur each year due to complications related to water-borne infections. Most of the victims are children. Poor nutrition, exposure, environmental contaminants and other factors create a cyclical problem that is hastened when a natural disaster sets in. Providing safe drinking water packets helps to break this chain and makes it easier to protect a community's smallest members from water-borne diseases.
Disaster zones aren't the only place that P&G's water packets are found, however. Its safe drinking water resources also go to remote villages and areas where potable water and other basic amenities are difficult to find.
"We have worked in schools and clinics, emergency relief [settings]," Tummon-Kamphuis told us, noting that the program has been used in countries across the globe and in places where water balance is an issue -- "such as Latin America, Sub-Sahara Africa and Asia.
"Through partnership, we have been able to provide nearly 800 million of the little packets. One packet purifies 10 liters of water. [That] is more than 8 billion liters of water around the world," Tummon-Kamphuis said.
The company's disaster programs also provide material assistance to disaster victims who have lost property, or are temporarily in community shelters. Products like shampoo, laundry detergent and personal care products become more than a comforting reassurance to a person who has lost his or her home. They are the essential ingredients to regaining independence after a disaster.
"As a company, P&G has been responding to disaster [needs] for many, many years. The objective of our program is to make a meaningful difference during times of disaster by providing the products that we make when they are needed the most," said Claude Zukowski, who manages the company's global disaster relief initiative.
Tummon-Kamphuis pointed out that the company's efforts in these areas are often enhanced by the partnerships it forms with NGOs, which become the on-the-ground distributors and educators during post-disaster relief. Organizations that have worked with P&G and help to distribute the packets include the Red Cross, UNICEF and Save the Children.
And it's not just people who receive assisting through P&G's efforts. The company has also been proactive in making sure that the most vulnerable victims receive food as well.
In March 2012, after tornadoes ripped through parts of the Midwest, the company shipped caseloads pet food, including IAMS, Eukanuba and Natural Pet products, to the tri-state area. Fifteen tons of pet food went to feeding the animals displaced by natural disaster.
P&G's emergency programs have also become fertile ground for engaging others in humanitarian efforts. Elizabeth Ratchford, P&G's communications manager, said that the company regularly involves employees in its preparatory efforts, as well as in actual relief efforts. The process helps elevate employee engagement and allows those who have a genuine interest in humanitarian relief to showcase their skills. Employees from 18 different P&G brands join together to help pack the shipments for the volunteer relief program. The experience gives them an up-close view of the volume of response that is often needed after a natural disaster, such as the events in Nepal.
"We also allow them to write personalized notes on cards that we put in with the kits," said Zukowski, who noted the personal participation helps engage the employees in the project.
Tummon-Kamphuis said the water purification project also promotes employee engagement by involving staff in community outreach and education.
"[In the] Children’s Safe Drinking Water Program, we actually have a network of very enthusiastic and passionate employees who are ambassadors for our program and really are raising awareness for global water innovation [programs] and water hygiene overall," Tummon-Kamphuis said.
Funding for the disaster relief programs mainly comes from the company and the brands it promotes, but employees and community members also contribute to P&G's disaster relief initiatives. P&G recently set up a matching gift fund for Nepal earthquake victims, and is collecting public donations for use by relief agencies. AmeriCares, Save the Children, International Medical Corps and other agencies receive funding through P&G's efforts.
In 2012, scientists working on P&G's Children's Safe Drinking Water Program were awarded the Economist Innovation Award for the program's success in transforming lives in post-disaster recovery. This year brought recognition to its teams as well, with three separate Edison Awards for innovation that brings positive impact to the world. P&G's ongoing success is testament that innovative businesses, combined with forward-thinking corporate responsibility programs, can elevate a community and change a world.
Images courtesy of P&G.
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.