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Haiti Still Lacks Safe Drinking Water and the International Community Is Partly to Blame

The international community of donor countries and humanitarian agencies share the responsibility.
 
 
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Port-au-Prince, Haiti -- On a Sunday afternoon in Camp Kasim, water is nowhere to be found. Once the Oxfam-supplied tanks run dry for the weekend, they will not be refilled until Monday. If cholera were to strike on a Sunday, life-saving rehydration may be but a theoretical possibility.

The cholera epidemic, which has now claimed the lives of over 3,000 people, is only the most recent and urgent symptom of a larger and ongoing violation of the right to water in Haiti. Cholera represents a special threat to the one million internally displaced people (IDPs) living in camps that often lack access to water and toilets.

For cholera, a disease that is waterborne and kills by dehydration, access to clean water is imperative to both prevention and treatment. Despite this, the cholera response has not led to significant improvements in access to clean water.

Attempts to contain the epidemic have centered largely on public education campaigns. Refrains like lave men nou ak savon ak dlo pwòp, byen kwit tout manje (wash your hands with soap and clean water, cook all food thoroughly) are blasted on megaphones, sent through mass text messages, and illustrated on colorful posters. But in the absence of access to clean water, the cholera prevention messages are a ridicule of the reality of the living conditions in most of Haiti's IDP camps.

At a recent training on prevention offered by the International Organisation on Migration (IOM), participants quickly grew weary. "What soap?" asked a man from Carrefour who had traveled over an hour to join the training. "How can we afford to buy Chlorox to treat our water when we don't have money to buy food for our children?" challenged another participant, highlighting the reality for many of Haiti's IDPs.

Under international human rights law, the Haitian Government has an obligation to ensure the availability, quality, and accessibility of water for all. Cholera has morbidly exposed preexisting failures in each of these areas.

The international community of donor countries and humanitarian agencies share the responsibility. Following the January 12 earthquake, they assumed a duty when they requested and received billions of dollars to meet the needs of the displaced. Rather than supporting the capacity of the government to build sanitation facilities and water systems, the money went directly to NGOs who adopted the responsibility for water provision in the camps.

Human rights law mandates that every person must have a supply of water that is sufficient and continuous for personal and domestic uses. Yet when it comes to water availability, Camp Kasim is still among the "lucky." Over 40 percent of IDP camps surveyed in October did not have any water supply at all.

Where agencies do supply water, it is generally untreated even though quality is a grave problem -- Haiti's water has previously been rated the worst in the world. To camp residents, waterborne diseases are nothing new -- they regularly report suffering from skin rashes and diarrhea from the consumption of contaminated water. Drinking dirty water is not the result of a lack of education but a lack of alternatives; 39 percent of respondents in a study conducted by the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) in July reported that they drank from tanks and cisterns even though they feared it was contaminated because they have no other options.

To access potable water in Kasim, the residents have to dart through busy traffic to purchase it at a store across the major street that runs outside the camp. This situation is replicated widely -- 50 percent of the families surveyed by IJDH had to purchase potable water every day. With 80% of the population living on less than $2 per day, finding money to buy water is a daily struggle. As a result of this, IJDH found that 44 percent of the families surveyed lacked access to potable water.

 
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