Hurricane Tomas and Cholera Epidemic Add New Urgency to Haiti’s Water Crisis

05Nov10

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By Isabeau Doucet

PORT AU PRINCE—­­­Kokorat is Kreyol slander for “street urchin,” and no Kokorats are more despised than the ones living off trash in Troutier, the city’s garbage and sewage dump at the north western-most edge of Cite Soleil. Household, medical and industrial waste is all mixed together with raw sewage. Thousands of people have no choice but to forage for recyclables amidst the piles of burning trash and pits of human waste.

Port-au-Prince and the rest of the earthquake devastated regions of Haiti are now bracing themselves for a direct hit from Hurricane Tomas by the end of the week. The capital has not had a hurricane approach this close for more than 100 years. Two weeks ago a South-Asian strain of cholera broke out and has killed 337 people, infected thousand of others and looms over the 1.5 million internally displaced living in tents without proper water and sanitation.

The potential for three simultaneous full-blown humanitarian catastrophes could be days away, all stemming from slow pace of shelter provision and the scandalous failure to significantly improve the sewage, sanitation and flooding problems the capital already faces.

On October 27th, cholera panic sparked a protest by residents of neighboring municipalities of Vaurdreuille, Bassan, Pois Congo, Martial, Duvivier, Bit Duvivier and Fontaine. They blockaded the entrance to Troutier, turning away trucks full of  human waste.

There are no regulations or laws on dumping in Port-au-Prince, meaning that turned away trucks would either dump their loads randomly or just not collect the sewage overflowing the latrines of the more than 1,300 camps of internally displaced people scattered around the capital. Both of these are nightmare scenarios in a city now threatened by cholera that could quickly ravage the million and a half shell-shocked and tired people camping in the mud since January.

Gardy Guerrier, one of the organizers of the protest, tells of how his mother was born in that town, but as the dump progressively encroaches, the land which once yielded all types of bananas, melons, peas, and vegetables sold in the markets of the capital now also yields stomach ailments, skin rashes and vaginal infections, and is infested with mosquito and rats.

A thunderstorm passed and we huddled under a tin roof surrounded by kids and elderly as Guerrier spoke. The kids gathered around to listen, and periodically wound up and slapped my arm, leg and thigh with a sober surgical precision. Guerrier assured the slaps were proof of the children’s affection — they were swatting mosquitoes.

“The stench in the air is so disagreeable it’s impossible to breathe,” says Guerrier. “Ten companies dump fecal matter here, including Jetco, Sanco, Cinco, Delta, HRG and the Red Cross.

“Before December 2009, the site was only used to dump household waste as well as hospital and industrial waste. We were told they would use the site to dump human waste for two weeks only, but the trucks kept coming and almost a year later, the government has not found an alternate site.”

“We only have shallow, hand-pumped wells here. The raw sewage in Troutier is dumped directly into the watertable and then seeps into our well. The Ministry of Public Works did a study and found that water tables for 30 kilometers around Troutier are contaminated. All of Port-au-Prince’s water is sourced from the Duvivier water table right here in La Plaine. How can cholera be contained if contaminated water is pumped right into the city’s taps?”

Sasha Kramer of SOIL, an NGO that has constructed dry compost toilets in Haiti since 2004, says the decision last December to unload human waste into the city’s garbage dump at Troutier was disastrous. “You don’t put your solid waste with your shit, knowing people’s livelihoods depend on recycling from the dumpster. They need to close off Troutier, put a fence around the pits, and have patrols out there monitoring and cleaning.”

“Ultimately, they need another site,” she continued, “but land tenure issues ”have halted this process as no landowners want to host the city’s raw sewage, especially now with a cholera epidemic at hand. “

Theo Huitema, World Vision’s water and sanitation expert and who oversaw the digging of the waste pits, says, “Between 500 and 900 cubic meters of human waste goes into Troutier every day, but it is possible to maintain the site, treat the waste and prevent it from seeping into the community’s water supply.”

“We have to make sure we don’t take one sanitation problem and move it elsewhere,” says Patrice Florvilus, a human rights lawyer who specializes in land tenure issues and is working with internally displaced earthquake victims faced with forced eviction. “Though we can’t say what the solution is, we can analyze the state’s degree of respect for human lives, and we can remind people of the 1921 Decree on the Recognition of Public Interest and the emergency law of April 15, 2010 which gives the government all the legal mechanisms to nationalize any piece of land.”

Provision of potable water is all privatized. According to a 2002 water poverty index study by the Keel University Economics department, Haiti’s water is rated as the worst quality in the world, behind Nigeria.

Water vending trucks parade the streets here like ice cream trucks, playing an infernal jingly rendition of the Titanic film theme song. It’s an apocalyptic soundscape that taunts the 1.5 million homeless.

Only 70 % of IDP camps have water at all, and much of this is not potable. Residents in the camps are constantly complaining of diarrhea, infections and other illnesses. Only 60% of camps have properly serviced toilets, according to Mark Schuller, a professor at the City University of New York who led an extensive survey on conditions in the camps this past summer and whose results were published in early October.

Yet, on October 26, Nigel Fisher, the UN Deputy Special Envoy for Haiti, told CBC Radio One’s The Current that “the great majority” of internally displaced camps are being served with potable water and sanitation services.

Cholera is preventable disaster, when water and sanitation systems are robust.  Over a decade ago, money was in place to address the country’s failing water system.  A $54 million loan from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) should have given the Haitian government means to rehabilitate its urban systems, including that of the town of Saint Marc, where the cholera epidemic first surfaced. But the foreign policy objectives of the US got in the way, and the US government secretly demanded the IDB block these as well as other approved loans, totaling $146 million, for investment in health, education and sanitation infrastructure.

Despite halting its loans, the IDB obliged the Aristide government to continue paying millions of dollars in interest on these loans, which took years to finally disburse.

“By failing to distribute loans and grants to Haiti, the IDB violated its own charter, which strictly prohibits the bank from letting politics influence its decisions,” says Monika Kalra Varma, Director of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. The Center publicized the internal US government documents detailing the improper U.S. government’s action in a 2008 report co-authored with Partners In Health and other medical and human rights organizations.  The report also included a study on the impact of the blocked loans on the people of Haiti.

“When it comes to water in Haiti, there is no accountability,” notes Amanda M. Klasing, fellow at Human Rights Watch, previously the primary investigator on the RFK Center report, “people knew the water made their children sick, but they were obliged to drink it. Not much has changed since 2008, people still rely solely for water and sanitation, without recourse if these actors fail them.”

Today, Bill Clinton and the same Inter-American Development Bank are the principle actors deciding how to manage the billions of dollars donated to Haiti’s reconstruction.

According to the Interim Commission for the Reconstruction of Haiti’s website, it approved $115 million in mid-August to, “Expand the water and sanitation network in Port-au-Prince and create additional coverage.” The IHRC press officer Denis Dufresne could give no information on the status of this funding and has yet to respond to a request for the name of someone on the commission who could.

Leaving Troutier at dusk on a choking motorcycle after a short, lashing storm, my driver swerves out of control and I’m plunged elbow-deep into the junkyard clay whose sediments hold untold stories and verdicts on life all around. We walk to the nearest shanty for another moto; under a china blue sky, orange street lamps and huddle of young men, I laugh and make self-deprecating banter in broken Kreyol hoping to diffuse any sign of my anxiety. Setting off again, we wade through a 4 km stretch of road with sewage water up to our knees. My driver, Lionel Elve, a university student in international relations, sais, “It’s always like this, the rains sweeps the filthy streets from Petionville to Cite Soleil and clog the canals with trash flowing down to sea.”

With Troutier mud under my finger-nails, I watch twitter light up with reports that this neighborhood saw its first indigenous – as of yet unconfirmed – case of cholera that morning in a woman who hadn’t left the neighborhood. My motorcycle splashes a woman with a crisp white dress hiked up to prevent it from being soiled. If cholera comes to Cite Soleil, where such flooding is as common as the rain, there will be no stopping it.

Little cliques of soot-coloured Kokorat scale and jump inside garbage trucks on the motorway, cheekily flinging things at passers by. It’s hard to tell if they’re pre-pubescent or stunted. Will they reach adulthood? “They are a law onto themselves and don’t even speak Kreyol,” says my driver. “But the same could be said,” he chuckles ironically, “of the people and policies who put them there.”

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