'It's up to God to bring more water to this island'
WATER: The staff of life is also the bringer of death in Haiti, where access to clean water is limited.
PORT-AU-PRINCE-- Samantha Joseph's quest for water begins just after sunrise when the roosters crow in Jalousie, a sprawling slum of concrete-block hovels that tumble down a steep mountainside above Haiti's capital city.
Joining a steady stream of young girls lugging empty antifreeze jugs, medical-waste containers, old paint cans and bright-colored buckets, the demure 13-year-old makes her way over a rocky slope each morning, past the homes of this country's elite.
If a groundskeeper is hosing the gardens, she may beg him to fill her jugs. If there's been a heavy rain, she and other children may rush to collect water trickling out of irrigation pipes from the well-fertilized lawns.
After walking three miles through several other slums and busy streets,
the trek ends at Tete de L'Oeu -- the fountainhead -- a small, sky-blue
concrete building that
resembles a public restroom on a South Florida beach.
A crossroads for the urban poor, the fountainhead offers a snapshot
of the chaos wrought by Haiti's growing environmental crisis: A man in
shorts is pulling wire
toward his home from a utility pole in a bid to steal electricity -- a common act of piracy that electrocutes dozens each year. Behind him, others collect water from a
filthy stream to make concrete blocks for new homes on land they occupy as squatters. Toddlers with bellies bloated from malnutrition play alongside scrawny pigs,
goats and other livestock in foul puddles teeming with flies and mosquitoes.
Samantha and other girls crowd into the building, pushing money through bars to a clerk who then steers them to another caged area where they fill their containers.
It's 9 a.m.
Like most here, she has never been to school; her family cannot afford the cost or the loss of Samantha's labor.
"It's women's work; that's just the way things are here," explained
Marie Therese Pierre, 62, the girl's grandmother and the matriarch of a
household of 58 people,
mostly small children, who live on a tiny plot in Jalousie. "But it's getting harder. There used to be plenty of water here. It was easy to find, and the streams were
clean. Now the streams are dirty and the girls, they walk a lot. But we cannot do without it, we try to collect it when it rains but that's really not enough."
Darlene Joseph, Samantha's 16-year-old cousin and guardian, also buys
water to resell in the streets, although she doesn't make much money. "In
the home where I
grew up we have a faucet in the house, but water hardly ever comes from it," she said.
Less than one-third of Haiti's population has access to clean drinking
water and sanitation. The number of people who live within 15 minutes of
a clean water supply
has fallen dramatically in recent years. Demand from the growing population has overtaken dwindling supplies. Young girls like Samantha are walking ever-longer
distances in search of water.
Haiti is at the forefront of a global water crisis. What happens here
during the next decade, experts say, could take place in larger, similarly
Although it receives huge amounts of annual rainfall, Haiti has managed to become one of the driest, most disease-ridden places on Earth. Freshwater aquifers are
shrinking. Desert areas are expanding.
Recent studies by the United Nations and other groups have ranked Haiti
among the worst in the world for water supply and quality. Investment in
water and sewer
systems -- largely constructed by the United States in the 1930s -- has not kept up with population growth. Most of the countryside, where about half the population
lives, has never had plumbing or sewers. Fewer than one-quarter of rural residents have access to clean water.
Clean water is a foundation of modern public health. The advent of water
and sewer treatment plants in Europe and the United States in the 19th
precipitated rapid declines in the rates of typhoid and other infectious diseases.
But in Haiti, much of the country remains hundreds of years behind developed nations.
`WATER IS LIFE'
"Water is life" is a common phrase among Haitians. The average Haitian's
life span has fallen to 49 years -- six years less than a decade ago --
in part because of
disease rates tied to dirty water.
Women and children suffer the most. With running water lacking in most
of the hospitals, Haiti's maternal- and infant-mortality rates are among
the highest in the
world. Twelve of every 100 children die before their fifth birthday, and more than 500 of 100,000 women die during childbirth. In the United States, fewer than one
of 100 children die before age 5; about seven of 100,000 U.S. women die during childbirth.
"Our biggest problem is water, followed closely by the lack of electricity,"
said Yvrose Lestin, a nurse at Carrefour Hospital, outside Port-au-Prince.
determines everything. The mothers who come here for treatment often don't have any water at home, and they're usually coming long distances without enough
The women who reach this hospital are among the lucky 20 percent of
Haitian women who give birth in a clinic or hospital. The rest rely on
family members or
village midwives. Lestin says most women show up only when they're in labor, usually at night to avoid filling out forms or standing in long lines.
"Some women get sick and nauseated just because of all the dirt, all
the sewage in the water they're drinking," Lestin said during a break between
not supposed to, but you end up feeding them and giving them water because you can't have people dying of starvation in a hospital.
"We do lose quite a few children here. Many are just born dead because of the bad water their mothers have been drinking."
Dr. Paul Farmer, who has run a clinic in Haiti for 20 years, says the impact of environmental conditions on health care is staggering.
"Maternal mortality rates are -- no other way to put this -- appalling,"
he said, in testimony at a U.S. Senate hearing on Haiti last summer. "Even
estimates [523 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births] are the worst in the hemisphere, and one community-based survey conducted in the 1980s pegged the figure
at 1,400 per 100,000 live births. For a sense of scale, those same figures in the United States, Costa Rica and Grenada are 7.1, 19.1 and 1 per 100,000 live births,
The water crisis affects every link in the island's food chain. Water
flowing from the mountains into fertile watersheds should transfer rich
minerals like fluoride, iron
and calcium from the soil to plants to animals and, ultimately, to people. Streams should run clean, fast and swift, emptying into freshwater lakes and the ocean
seabeds, nourishing habitats for fish, an important sustenance food.
But as deforestation and erosion cause Haiti's rivers to silt up and
dry out, freshwater lakes are disappearing and coastal seabeds are smothered
by runoff from the
"There used to be fish coming out of this lake -- nice big fish -- but
nobody's eating fish here anymore," said Willy Mathurin, a fisherman who
lives along the L'Etang
Bois Neuf, a lake that has dried out. Cattle now graze its surface. "The United Nations came here one time and was actually going to start a fishery. Now look at it."
Mathurin said poor farmers and fishermen cannot stop erosion. Only a national effort can do that.
"There's no way to stop the mud from coming and blocking up these lakes,"
he said. "There's no time to plant enough trees to save people here. The
water that's life
is just nothing but stagnant water, not the sweet water we need."
As more lakes and streams are lost, young girls like Samantha must walk
farther and families must pay more than ever for the precious liquid. Some
experts estimate that simply getting cheap drinking water to Haitian families would raise their income by one-third and perhaps allow more families to send their
daughters to school.
"I have a husband and a son who are earning most of the money, but my
son, the bricklayer, all of his money goes for the water," said Pierre,
grandmother. "It didn't use to be that way, but what do you do?"
PAYING A HIGH PRICE
Water is also power. A new well will draw squatters so rapidly that
the path to the water is quickly obscured by dozens of makeshift shanties
overnight. Many squatters sell what they don't need for a small profit to water-gatherers like Samantha.
"The biggest concern for us is the effect it has on the children because
it is the girls who are sent to fetch the water," said Jacques Laguerre,
30, head of a citizens
group in Jalousie. "We've had many children hit by cars on these busy streets fetching water. Some are walking three, four miles one way and they get very tired,
Chantal Coq estimates her family may spend as much as 25 gourdes --
about 75 cents -- a day on water. That's a huge sum, considering the average
daily wage in
Haiti is just over $1. "But we know that it's safe water, that's the thing," said Coq, 26.
Others, meanwhile, have created a private system of water by drilling
illegal wells that tap into the country's aquifer. In the Cul-de-Sac area
drilling continues night and day on private lots where dozens of tankers fill up under giant pipes. The neighborhood poor gather the runoff to bathe, wash their clothes
and collect drinking water.
"I know it hurts the underground water; it's more brackish than it was
a year ago, but if the country was working well, then I wouldn't be doing
this because there
wouldn't be any money in it," said Harry Frantz, 35, who manages about 30 trucks a day from his pumping station on property in the Cul-de-Sac. "But people need
water, I need money, so this is what you have. We're all just trying to survive and without water that won't happen."
In places like Jalousie, the few residents with running water in their homes sell it to others.
"There's maybe 1/20th of the homes here that have plumbing, but those
are the power brokers," said Laguerre. "They become merchants overnight,
and the money
is better than anything they'll make in another job."
There is no public sewage collection or treatment in any of Haiti's
cities, leaving many water sources contaminated with organisms that cause
fatal diseases and
CORRECTING THE CRISIS
Haiti's abundant rainfall could provide enough water for its current
population, if it were captured and well-managed in clear canals, water-treatment
distribution facilities. On average, the country receives about 55 inches of rainfall every year. By comparison, South Florida receives between 40 and 65 inches
Political conflicts have stymied efforts to reverse the country's water
crisis and better manage resources for irrigation, sanitation and consumption.
In July, the
Inter-American Development Bank said it would release nearly $200 million in loans to Haiti that had been withheld since 2000 because of missed repayment
deadlines. About $146 million of that money is slated to improve access to safe water and improve roads and medical clinics over three to five years.
But tens of millions of dollars have already been spent on such efforts, with mixed results, in the last two decades.
The Pan American Health Organization funded construction of 148 water
and sanitation systems in rural areas at a cost of some $16 million during
the 1980s. But
efforts to build on those initiatives have stalled in the past decade.
"The country has more than enough water; it's a question of storing
and managing it well," said Jean Andre Victor, one of Haiti's leading environmental
"But if we started now, it's going to take years, perhaps decades, to correct this crisis."
Victor envisions a coming environmental struggle with the Dominican
Republic, which, though poor, has much better access to water and sanitation.
As Haiti's rivers
and underground streams continue to dry up, more pressure will be put on the Artibonite River, the main source of water for both countries.
"You have two different cultures sharing the same island: One is running
out of water, but the other still has plenty of it," said Victor. "If we
don't work out better
ways to manage our water, I really fear serious problems breaking out over the Artibonite."
Haitian government officials could solve the nation's water crisis by
following the Dominican Republic's lead -- creating systems to capture,
treat and distribute the
island's abundant rainfall for consumption, agricultural and industrial uses. Reservoirs are needed to store fresh water. Land-management techniques are necessary
for replenishing aquifers. Conservation programs would ensure that surface water sources -- lakes, rivers, ponds, springs and streams -- are well maintained and
Barring that, the country will continue to exploit its finite sources of ground water.
"The serious deforestation that has taken place has upset the rainfall
and hydro-geological system of the country," concluded a United Nations
Program report this year. It has led to a "decline in the flow of springs and the replenishment of underground water. ... The volume of water flowing from 18 springs
that supply Port-au-Prince has dropped on average by 50 percent in the last 10 years. A similar situation exists practically throughout the entire country."
Once that fresh water is gone, it cannot be replaced.
"They're drilling in so many places that the aquifer is going down and
the salt water is coming in," said Paul Paryski, a former U.N. environmental
manager who ran
projects in Haiti from 1994 until 2000. "Once that cycle is complete, it's finished. You cannot rebuild an aquifer."
But such consequences are inconceivable to the Joseph family, whose water carriers cannot imagine conditions becoming worse than they already are.
"Something has to improve because we can't walk much farther for water
or we'll be gone all day," said Samantha Joseph's cousin, Darlene. "It's
not up to us, but it's
up to God to bring more water to this island.
"God or the government."
Copyright © 2004