As many Haitians settle into life in tent cities that can number into the tens of thousands, water and sanitation have become a critical issue for the health of these communities. Aid organizations and the Haitian government were quick to establish a water supply to some of these tent cities, but as Sabri Ben-Achour reports from Port-au-Prince, sanitation is quite another matter. (Photo: Sabri Ben-Achour)
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MARCO WERMAN: I’m Marco Werman, this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH in Boston. A Haitian judge said today he plans to release 10 Americans charged with trying to take Haitian children out of the country. Meanwhile, a month after the earthquake hit the European Union says it will provide shelters that can withstand heavy rains. Right now masses of Haitians are settling into life in tent cities. Aid organizations and the Haitian government have established water supplies for some of these tent cities. But as Sabri Ben-Achour reports from Port-au-Prince, sanitation is another matter.
SABRI BEN-ACHOUR: In a scene typical of any big tent city here, people huddle around a curious looking box of tanks and tubes. This miniature purification plant is the only source for clean, free water for the 4,600 people who now live in this soccer stadium. The machine pumps water from an underground tank, chemically sterilizes it, and dispenses it into plastic jugs, metal bowls, or whatever other containers the camp dwellers bring. One camp dweller is Natasha Jean. For drinking and cooking she says. Jean will take the water back to a sheet stretched on poles that she calls home. Some camps have giant bladders that look like hot water bottles. Others have big tanks of water. A few of the smallest camps have nothing at all, though water was among the earliest services to reach hundreds of thousands of displaced Haitians. Not quite enough to keep fights from breaking out, says Pierre Fritzner. He mans the purification pump at the stadium. People battle, he says, especially when people try to get a lot of water at one time. I’m just here to work the pump and to try and maintain discipline, so there’s not much I can do about it. Two blocks away are the bathrooms. Four port-a-potties, for 920 families. Seventeen-year-old Shilov Dol says they are so foul and so far away that people have stopped using them. He points to the real bathroom, a nearby field. But the smell coming from little pockets around the stadium signals it’s not just the field.
WILLIAM SABATER: Anywhere. Any open space available in the area.
BEN-ACHOUR: William Sabater is a sanitation engineer from the Philippines who is among the many volunteers trying to work on sanitation here.
SABATER: So that really making the bad situation worse.
BEN-ACHOUR: At a lower elevation and a few dozen feet from the stadium is a trench where people bathe and wash their clothes.
SABATER: It is not actually advisable to bathe in that area. And also the waste water are deposited on the tennis court just beside the stadium. So this tennis court is already filled with stagnant water. So that could be a breeding place also for vectors.
BEN-ACHOUR: Vectors like flies that spread disease. Jen McNulty is a Chicago doctor volunteering at the stadium.
JEN MCNULTY: It’s a set up. It’s a set up for cholera.
BEN-ACHOUR: Just wait, McNulty says, until it rains. The water from the field will wash into the bathing area, perhaps even to the other camps. People will track it into their homes.
MCNULTY: Cholera is the kind of disease that if it starts, it will kill a ton of people. They’re all living in the same environment. So if it does start, it’s going to be hard to stop.
BEN-ACHOUR: She’s already had a few scares.
MCNULTY: At the stadium we’re seeing quite a bit of diarrhea, colds, coughs, general infectious diseases. For a few days we were concerned because a lot of young infants were having frequent diarrhea, very watery diarrhea and that’s really what sets Cholera apart.
BEN-ACHOUR: McNulty says that problem seems to have cleared up. But the Haitian government and all of the 30 to 40 NGO’s trying to remedy the situation are racing against time. The rainy season is coming. Paul Nouvellon works for the National Administration for Potable Water and Sanitation.
PAUL NOUVELLON: This is obviously a big issue.
BEN-ACHOUR: There are up to 600 tent cities in the region and each will require a different solution.
NOUVELLON: What we are facing now is we’ve got two types of scenes, where we can dig latrines and where we cannot dig anything.
BEN-ACHOUR: That is, in some places they can dig trenches or outhouses. In others, NGO’s like UNICEF are ordering chemical toilets, above-ground septic tanks and other semi-permanent structures. They have not all arrived.
NOUVELLON: Then there is an urgent need for desludging trucks.
BEN-ACHOUR: Those too are on order. Nouvellon says there is yet another challenge to resolve before they arrive. There is no officially sanctioned dump site, just a landfill in the countryside. Back at the tent city in the soccer stadium, Stephanie Jeannot is walking her children towards a grassy area. We need help, she says, because the whole structure of this country is smashed. For The World, I’m Sabri Ben-Achour, Port-au-Prince.
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