Coming out of the Water Closet: Haiti on World Toilet Day

November 19, 2012
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Today is World Toilet Day. Of a global population of 7 billion, a staggering 2.5 billion people have no access to clean toilet facilities – that’s about 1 in 3 people. Some of them live in the Caribbean; many of these live in Haiti – and the lack of this fundamental human right to sanitation continues to cause unnecessary disease and death. World Toilet Day aims to break the taboo around toilets and hygiene, and draw attention to the existing global sanitation challenge. To support the effort (kind of like what we did here) and rally around the campaign’s “I give a shit, do you?” theme, this post revisits some of the ways in which the absence of what many of us take for granted – a private place to do your business – has made an impact on life in Haiti.

The island nation has, of course, had more than its share of challenges: natural disasters, the most devastating of which in recent times was the 2010 earthquake and its resulting water woes, reports of financial impropriety in charitable aid organisations, questionable “relief” donations that threatened to wipe out the country’s struggling agricultural sector, coupled with hurricane damage and a massive cholera outbreak on the heels of the earthquake that added to the already steep death toll. Just over a year ago, Dying in Haiti marked the one year anniversary of the outbreak:

In October 2010 cholera started started infecting and killing Haitians.

It has been one year now and conservative numbers say that cholera has infected 500,000 Haitians and killed 6,500 of them. This is more than any place in the world. Including India, Africa, Anywhere….

Dirty water is to blame. And Haiti’s water was deplorable long before the earthquake in 2010. It was deemed worst in the world in 2002….

That is one of the reasons I named this blog Dying in Haiti six years ago. Dirty water….

The post quoted a mainstream media article that explained:

Cholera is caused by a bacteria found in contaminated water or food. It spreads quickly in unhygienic environments and can quickly kill people through complete dehydration, but is easily treatable if caught in time.

Haiti has long suffered from improper sanitation because of its poverty but sanitation conditions in the capital and other urban areas became much worse after last year’s earthquake forced thousands of people to set up makeshift shelters in public plazas, soccer fields and other open areas.

Out of 12,000 latrines needed, only about a third were reported to be working in August, down from more than 5,800 the month before, Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said. Meanwhile, the number of nonfunctional latrines more than doubled, from about 1,300 in July to about 2,600 in August.

Also, more than 1,000 latrines have been abandoned, leading to outdoor defecation, which heightens the risk of contamination for people living in the camps.

Haiti’s cholera epidemic was not just a health issue. It affected the country’s elections and began to have an impact on international relations, as the tide turned against the United Nations presence in the country. (The cause of the cholera outbreak was traced to UN forces in the island.) This November 2010 Global Voices post examined the situation:

The outbreak has turned into an epidemic, with the death toll rising every day. Haiti, already poorly equipped to deal with this level of public health threat, has been grappling more than usual to contain its spread in the aftermath of the January 12 earthquake – nearly a year later, people are still living in tent cities.

Adding insult to injury – or, in this case, anger to anguish – have been reports claiming that the epidemic was caused by “excrement from Nepalese peacekeepers.” It is no secret that the occupying UN forces, known as MINUSTAH, have a troubled history in Haiti; bloggers have been quite outspoken on the subject, asking whether stabilization is actually a euphemism for subordination.

Against this backdrop, the mere possibility that the cause of the cholera outbreak could be traced back to MINUSTAH (a claim which the UN denies) is proving to be the final straw. As the disease spread to the capital, Port-au-Prince, so have the anti-UN protests.

Haiti Grassroots Watch explained:

Cholera is a disease of the poor, of the disenfranchised. Poor people in poor countries. Cholera thrives where there is no clean water, where there is inadequate sanitation, where there are poor health systems.

While it’s now clear that UN soldiers likely brought Vibrio cholera to Haiti, and while it is also clear that good health care, access to a clean water and sanitation, good hygiene practices and a vaccine can keep it at bay, it’s not clear how to achieve all of that before many thousands more die.

And even if cholera is beaten, dozens of other waterborne diseases threaten Haiti. According to the World Health organization, every year 1.4 million people die from waterborne diseases – about four per minute – most as a result of unsafe and inadequate water and sanitation.

Haiti Grassroots Watch decided to dig into the why and the how of Haiti’s ‘ravaged’ and ‘striken’ situation and asked

• Why has cholera taken hold so easily?
• Why don’t Haitians have access to clean water and adequate sanitation?
• And if all $164 million the UN is seeking is rounded up and cholera eradicated, what will keep another water-borne disease from sweeping ghrough the country?

This post couldn’t answer those questions, but it did try to help spread life-saving information by profiling doctor/blogger Jan Gurley, who visited Haiti twice since the January 12, 2010 earthquake to volunteer her services, and created an instructional video on oral rehydration therapy (ORT) that she could leave with her Haitian colleagues and patients:

So where does World Toilet Day fit in? It hopes to raise awareness, inspire action, and make sanitation and hygiene for all a reality in the 21st century. You can get involved by sharing key messages about safe toilets, advocating for better sanitation by hosting an event and registering activities on an interactive World Toilet Day map, and telling the world why You Give A Shit on Facebook and Twitter. And lest you think that someone else’s toilet troubles don’t affect you, remember that diseases caused by ineffective sanitation can spread – even into areas that aren’t toilet-challenged. Sign the petition, here.

Written by Janine Mendes-Franco

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