Monday, February 01, 2010

water (re: haiti)...

“Water is life's mater and matrix, mother and medium. There is no life without water.”
- Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, 1937 Nobel Prize Winner for Medicine

Many factors contributed to the inability of the Haitian state to respond effectively to the immediate needs of its citizens following the devastating earthquake that occurred on January 12, 2010, outside the capital city of Port-au-Prince. Years of accumulated debt and the systematic destruction of the Haitian state apparatus by the Papa Doc/Baby Doc Duvalier dictatorship left Haiti in a precarious economic and political position for much of the post-Cold War era. The Duvalier family, it is estimated, misappropriated more than $900 million USD in multinational and bilateral loans supplied by such agencies as the World Bank and The International Monetary Fund, leaving the Haitian state responsible for debt obligations while the actual funds were largely invested in the regime’s totalitarian “tonton macoute” death squads and funneled into Swiss bank accounts of the bourgeoisie class. In addition, the period of post-Duvalier Haiti (1986 to the present) has bore witness to the overthrow of four democratically elected Haitian Presidents, including Jean-Bertrand Aristide twice, and the gradual deterioration in the ability of the Haitian state to respond to natural disasters such as Hurricane Jeanne (2004) and Hurricane Hanna (2008) as ever-increasingly portions of its treasury funds have gone into servicing its debt obligations rather than infrastructure development that may provide sustained economic growth.

By the time the 7.3 magnitude earthquake struck Port-au-Prince this January, Haiti had the unfortunate distinction of being the most impoverished nation in the Western Hemisphere, with a per capita income of approximately $400 USD per citizen. But then again, mere poverty, political instability, and economic indicators such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP) have never been the best variables to predict the likelihood of an effective responsive to a natural disaster by any given government (e.g. the U.S., Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans; the annual GDP in 2008 of the USA was $14.2 trillion, Haiti in 2008 had a GDP of $7.01 billion). Despite the myriad of resource shortages faced by the Haitian Republic, perhaps most dire and immediate to the needs of its citizens is access to an adequate supply of clean water.

Water is involved in all bodily functions: digestion, assimilation, elimination, respiration, maintaining temperature (homeostasis) integrity and the strength of all bodily structures. A number of scenarios have been developed based on the most recent United Nations population projections (2008) and the future for many parts of the world looks bleak. The most alarming projection suggests that nearly 7 billion people in 60 countries will suffer from water scarcity by 2050. Even according to conservative projections, just under 2 billion people in 48 countries will struggle against water scarcity in 2050. Currently, nearly half of all Haitians lack satisfactory access to clean drinking water, and more than two-thirds live without adequate sanitation. Water poverty has been noted as one of the main reasons for Haiti’s abnormally high levels of preventable illness and early mortality rates. The Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) reported in 2006 that more than half of all deaths (at any age) in Haiti were due to water-borne gastro-intestinal diseases.

The immediate need of clean water in Haiti had been known by Western governments as early as 1990, when The US Army Corps of Engineers observed that epidemics in Port-au-Prince such as malaria, typhoid, chronic diarrhea, and intestinal infections are caused by water contaminated by rubbish and fecal matter. Haiti's coverage levels in urban and rural areas are the lowest in the hemisphere for both clean water supply and sanitation, and these facts reflect a pre-earthquake reality. Within the country, contaminated water is the leading cause of infant mortality and illness in children. Sewer systems and wastewater treatment outside of the capital and Cap-Haïtien, the second-largest city in Haiti, are largely nonexistent. During the period of 1990 and 2006, Haiti experienced a 34% decrease in the number of sanitation facilities (which include piped sewer systems, septic tanks, pit latrines) adversely affecting an estimated 162,000 Haitians. With an estimate of 19% of the Haitian population having access to adequate sanitation facilities, the majority of citizens (81%) utilize sanitation facilities and methods that did not ensure hygienic separation of human excreta from human contact. Undoubtedly, a majority of these individuals reside in urban centers such as Port-au-Prince and with the current state of sanitation infrastructure and water-delivery systems in the Haitian capital, it is certain that this problem has only gotten worse following the recent earthquake.

Source: UNICEF, 2008

The absence of ample sanitation facilities is further complicated by World Health Organization (2006) statistics that suggest 67% of Haitian households did not treat their water before consumption and 30% of those who do, utilized bleach or chlorine as a treatment method; only 1 percent use a water filter. Prior to the earthquake, only 52% of the urban population in Haiti had any consistent access to clean water in the general sense, with only 24% having access directly from their residences. The numbers fared a little better for those in rural communities with 56% having access to water but only 3% having direct access from their homes. When inadequate sanitation systems are coupled with untreated water, one can only imagine the health ailments resulting from the lack of access to clean water.

The time taken to collect water (travel to the source, stand in line, fill water containers and return home) is critical in determining whether a household can obtain enough water for drinking, food preparation and personal hygiene. Studies have found that if the time spent collecting drinking water is between 5 and 30 minutes, the amount collected is fairly constant and suitable to meet basic needs. However, if the total time taken per round trip exceeds 30 minutes, people tend to collect less water, thus compromising their basic drinking water needs. Women are more than twice as likely as men to go and fetch drinking water; children more likely than men. The daily struggle for basic sustenance exacerbates the grind of persistent poverty by consuming time that could be spent more productively on activities such as schooling, homework, or tasks that may supplement household income, such as growing crop or selling goods in the market.

Before the earthquake, the René Préval administration was working to expand its already modestly successful water initiatives in rural areas, including the local management of simple well pumps. This form of local water management both inside and outside the cities is a necessary condition for rebuilding all of Haiti. The objective of any effort to provide water filtration equipment is to increase access to and use of a clean water supply and sanitation services in participating rural communities. The specific objectives are: increase the sustained and effective use of safe drinking water in participating communities; to improve use of effective sanitation and hygiene practices in participating communities; strengthen the capacity of the implementing agency, local water committees, and professional operators in cooperation with local communities and municipal governments.

In rebuilding Haiti’s water systems, it is imperative to focus on simple and affordable local projects that communities can assume their own agency and take responsibility for themselves in the event of subsequent collapses of the state. The Haitian government has been nearly paralyzed by the earthquake, which destroyed its infrastructure, including the Presidential Palace, and caused the death of many governmental officials. The Haitian Parliament collapsed. The tax office collapsed. Schools and universities collapsed. Penitentiaries were destroyed. Hospitals broken. So far the Haitian government has concentrated its efforts on appealing for foreign aid and holding dozens of meetings with potential outside contractors to discuss debris removal, sanitation and other long-term needs. However, it still has not produced detailed emergency response and immediate recovery plans. Efforts have focused upon moving people from areas around the capital prone to more aftershocks and landslides, into tent cities that have sanitation and security, but these resettlement camps have yet to be built.


While efforts made by the international community have been admirable, the basic need for clean water is a persistent and immediate need for more than 3 million people within the Haitian capital and its surrounding suburbs. Walking through Mexico City this past week I was amazed at Mexican Government’s efforts to turn their city’s largest plaza into a drop-off center for supplies destined for Haiti. Piles of clothing, medical supplies, and water, positioned behind barricades and guarded by Mexican federal police in the Plaza de la Constitución, even the “third-world” was offering help, a wonderful sight to behold. But what good was all this water and assorted supplies sitting in a plaza in Mexico City? Such efforts by other governments for the people of Haiti is certainly admirable and should be acknowledged and commended, but eventually the tragedy in Haiti will fade from the consciousness of nations well before Haiti’s need for assistance will end. The citizens of Haiti would benefit immensely, in both short and long-term need, from tools and equipment that will provide a consistent and sustainable supply of this indispensible resource.

Mexico City- Haiti Relief Collection Point, January 25, 2010

Water is essential to life and civilization yet one in five people worldwide lack access to at least one gallon of safe water to drink per day. Additionally, two in five do not have access to the mere 13 gallons needed for basic sanitation and hygiene, mainly due to the deficit of existing infrastructure and competent, institutional governance within their respective countries. Water is an essential resource in the promotion of human life, engendering prolonged community building and development. Historically, water has served as both uniter and divider, a barrier and a conveyance, but always a great transformer of civilization, vital in nearly every aspect of human society. The manner in which each member of the world community acts in response to the crisis in Haiti, is not just a matter of economic and political history, but also a judgment on our own humanity and the ultimate fate of human civilization. After all we are, as living organisms, predominantly water. Every drop counts.

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