For many Americans, our first experience with the small Caribbean nation of Haiti was the devastating earthquake that struck its capital in 2010, killing between 46,000 and 85,000 people. All of the sudden this tiny country became the epicenter of a massive humanitarian campaign, complete with a “We Are The World 25 For Haiti” song. Images of Haiti’s tragedy-struck citizens flooded the national consciousness. But what these images failed to communicate was Haiti’s desperate condition long before the earthquake. For years, Haiti has been identified as the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, with about 54% of its population surviving on less than $1 a day. The harsh reality of it is: Haiti was and remains a country in desperate need, now more than ever, of water.
Close to 70% of Haiti’s population does not have access to clean drinking water, a percentage that represents a need difficult to fathom here in the States. Unlike in most developed nations , where fresh drinking water is essentially a guaranteed basic right, Haiti’s lack of a federal infrastructure, reliance on foreign aid (which usually bypassed the Haitian government and went straight to for-profit organizations), and widespread poverty have prevented the creation of an adequate nationwide water system. In fact, Port-au-Prince (Haiti’s capital) does not even have a central sewage system. Worse still, the limited system of wells and pipes that many Haitians rely on were destroyed by the earthquake, leaving Haiti ranked last on the International Water Poverty Index, a holistic metric for measuring a country’s water management that considers factors like availability, efficiency, and environmental impact. Only 20% of Haitian households have piped water supply, while the rest of the population relies on a variety of other services, like wells that are often defunct, rivers that are often contaminated, and any number of other sources that do not guarantee potable and accessible water.
In urban areas like Port-au-Prince, many people depend on services like water trucks and water vendors. The trucks, which carry 3,000 gallons of water, deliver to homes and institutions with cisterns, large concrete tanks for collecting rainwater. These deliveries can go for thirty to a hundred dollars, depending on the circumstances. These water trucks, which are often owned by residents who have chosen to buy a truck and resell the water to their neighbors, are a colorful and crucial staple of urban life. Water packet vendors and water sellers are two other booming water businesses in the city. Water packet vendors are young men who, for a profit of about $2 a day, buy bags of water packets from big water companies and sell the packets on the streets. On foot, they weave through traffic and chase after buses, selling these seven-ounce packets for about three cents apiece. Water sellers are women who patrol the city with buckets of water on their heads, selling glasses of water to pedestrians.
For most, in both cities and villages, the daily struggle for water is fierce. Arguing, haggling, and begging become necessary for survival, as does learning to use to limited amount of water you can find. Dirty rivers and trickles of water on roads are used to bathe and wash clothes. Young children of families trek for long distances to fill up as many containers as they can carry. This daily hustle for water is an inextricable part of many Haitians’ lives, and the health risks that it poses is severe. Waterborne illnesses like cholera and typhoid make up more than 50% of the country’s deaths, and the risk of outbreak is alarmingly present. Because most the country does not have access to modern sanitation, waste from toilets and latrines can easily pollute rivers and water sources.
Haiti currently relies on a great deal of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for relief from this crisis. Many independent aid groups like Oxfam, Living Water International, International Action, and the World Bank Group are fixing defunct pipes and purifiers, reinstalling broken government relief systems, and introducing their own creative water solutions to help mitigate the crisis. Others are working on stopping the spread of cholera, or installing training schools to educate villagers and relief workers on how to best help the crisis. Among the new solutions are “chlorine boxes”, which dispense chlorine to disinfect 5 gallons of water with one pump. Installing filters made of cheap, sustainable materials like plastic and biosand in households is something NGOs are doing to help.
It is devastating to learn that, even in 2017, among great innovation and progress, a crisis like this one is affecting so many lives. However, hope gleams bright for Haiti, a country that, despite its trials, has opened its arms wide to others in its efforts to save itself. Independent non-governmental organizations that either incentivize the Haitian people to rebuild or contribute directly to the Haitian community are slowly but surely providing solutions to the water crisis, village by village. Innovations like chlorinators can be manufactured for less than $300 dollars and can disinfect up to 25,000 gallons of water. Sustainable water committees are forming in Haitian communities, working together with independent aid organizations to create reliable plans. Over 350,000 Haitians now have permanent access to clean water, and, with the sustained teamwork of Haitian communities and dedicated aid, that number will continue to increase.