A Q&A with Altuğ Bilgiç, General Manager & Operations Director, Xylem Middle East & Türkiye
Last year, 185 million people globally were impacted by natural disasters as severe weather events and natural disasters devastated communities. In the aftermath of these events, the rapid restoration of clean water is vital to public health.
Xylem Watermark's disaster response partnerships have brought life-changing clean water and sanitation to countless lives, with humanitarian assistance given to 92 areas in the past four years. One of those areas was Türkiye, where in the aftermath of the 7.8 earthquake in February 2023, Xylem's local team joined partners on the ground to provide safe water to disaster-struck communities.
Emma Housman, Manager Community and Social Impact at Xylem, recently spoke to Altuğ Bilgiç, General Manager & Operations Director, Xylem Middle East & Türkiye, about how Xylem responded to the disaster.
Emma Housman: Together with our partners, we are committed to leveraging our expertise and solutions to help communities in need meet severe water challenges – such as lack of drinkable water and flooding – which can arise after disaster strikes.
Through our team of 22,000 colleagues, Xylem Watermark helps provide boots on the grounds in the places that need them most. On February 6, 2023, that was southeast Türkiye. Could you describe that day?
Altuğ Bilgiç: The earthquake hit at 4:00 am when everyone was sleeping. When I woke up early, the first reports of the earthquake were already dominating the headlines.
Türkiye is no stranger to earthquakes, but it was clear that the destruction was going to be huge. In February, we still had sub-zero temperatures. The disaster affected a massive geographic area, around the size of England, and destroyed thousands of homes and businesses.
Our office and plant are 1,000 km from the earthquake zone, so all Xylem employees were safe. That was the only good news.
Once we all came to work, I started receiving messages from Xylem at all levels asking about our employees’ well-being and if there was anything they could do to support the response efforts.
We keep a stack of items for donations in Xylem Türkiye and often donate to schools and children. The first thing we checked was what we had available to send immediately. We had children’s hats, scarves, and an extra stock of fleece we had held in stock for our employees. These were sent to the earthquake zone via the Türkiye Red Crescent on day one, to help clothe those who had been made homeless.
Emma Housman: In disaster scenarios, lack of access to clean water quickly becomes a public health concern. We are committed to leveraging our expertise and offerings to help communities, when and where possible, to meet severe water challenges. How do you react to respond to a disaster of this scale?
Altuğ Bilgiç: Our mission is to solve water. When this immense tragedy struck so close to home, we had to act. The region was in chaos. Search and rescue teams were deployed from around the world to help, but the loss of life was tragic.
Wounded people were sent to hospitals across the country, while others were sent to their relatives elsewhere or put into tents. Bottled water supplies arrived from across the country, but this was only a temporary solution.
The logistics of quickly orchestrating the right help to the right people is a challenge. Coordination is critical.
We collaborate with Planet Water Foundation, a non-profit committed to delivering clean water to the world's underserved communities. They act as our deployment ally, ensuring our local employees contribute effectively where needed. Partnerships with authorized organizations are key. In this case, we worked closely with the Türkiye Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) and Red Crescent, which provided support with the identification of deployment sites.
We spoke to the AFAD about how and where we could help as water shortages began to become an issue.
Water-borne disease can make an already devastating situation even more deadly. For instance, cholera outbreaks can pose a threat to communities as clean water and sanitation become an immediate challenge.
Fortunately, our technical proficiency and technology can provide assistance. The AquaBlock water filtration system excels in challenging settings, rapidly purifying non-potable sources for clean drinking water. These are particularly valuable in situations like this. They swiftly ship as air cargo, need minimal setup and training and run on various power sources.
Once we had an agreement on sites, we delivered 16 AquaBlocks that provided drinking water to up to 160,000 people. This was a major need answered by Xylem and our partners.
Emma Housman: Our role doesn’t stop at that first emergency phase. Once the initial damage has been assessed, Xylem Watermark is also committed to helping rebuild. Can you describe how our work in the region evolved following the immediate aftermath?
Altuğ Bilgiç: Some 60,000 multi-storey buildings collapsed or were damaged beyond use. The region has faced significant migration, which is causing housing price hikes in neighbouring regions, alongside schooling difficulties, and many other issues. Some people are still living in tent and container cities. A massive construction campaign is underway to rebuild the homes and restart the economy.
Water plays a pivotal role in this endeavor. Collaborating with local municipalities, we aid in rehabilitating impaired pumping systems. Moreover, the Smart Ball system, a free-swimming inspection tool, evaluates high-risk water pipelines for potential damage.
As our climate changes more regions are likely to be affected by disasters. Preparedness is key to mitigate danger and combat the spread of waterborne disease. Learn more about disaster preparedness and how you can join us to assist communities impacted by disasters.