The water carriers work quietly today in Port-au-Prince. It’s Friday, the kids are in class, and the crowds won’t start until early tomorrow. In huge white buckets that once stored paint, they carry water from a pipe, a piece of white plastic, as wide as an elephant’s trunk, that appears between the roots of a tree, directly from the wall of the hill. “That water is clean,” says 22-year-old Richie Alexei, waiting his turn to load.
Alexei’s confidence in the freshness of the water lacks a theoretical basis. He relies, however, on the experience that he has been there many times. It is not that the hill is hell itself, but the amount of garbage accumulated in the ravine, forming its own channel, meanders of plastic bottles and polystyrene containers, feeds anyone’s doubts. 15 meters from the elephant’s trunk, another pipe comes out of the wall. That water is bad, says Alexei.
The difficulty in finding potable water in Haiti — or water clean enough to be made drinkable — sharpens the wits in the capital and its metropolitan area, home to three million people, always on the brink of catastrophe. To the institutional and violent crises that keep the city half besieged, we must add the peaks of the health crisis, always pending water, access to water, clean water.
The disease, caused by the ingestion of contaminated water, reappeared at the end of last year, in the midst of the chaos that the country was experiencing at the time, and in a few months it had already caused more than 450 deaths. The country was then turned upside down, first, by the wave of protests that caused the rise in fuel prices, of more than 100%. And second, connected to the first, due to the kidnapping of the fuel storage terminal in the port of the capital, by a criminal gang.
The country was paralyzed. Without diesel, a large part of the population lacked electricity. Without gasoline, the drinking water distribution companies could not distribute jugs. In Haiti, public water and electricity supply systems appear in the realm of utopia. Due to the situation, pipes like Alexei’s became one of the few options available. But not everyone could get here, up to the hills. In the lower areas of the city, the only option was to dig wells. And that, in densely populated and impoverished slums, where the topsoil is made of rubbish, was like shooting himself in the foot.
Martin Schuepp, director of operations of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), visited Port-au-Prince a few days ago, to try to take the pulse of the city after the difficulties of recent months. “The problem with cholera has to do with a total lack of sanitation and medical services in densely populated areas, as well as violence,” he argues. “Many clinics and hospitals are having trouble working due to insecurity,” he adds. The ICRC, which returned to Haiti in 2021 after a four-year absence, is now helping other Red Cross agencies in the country to operate their cholera programs, among other tasks.
Beyond the paralysis of last year, the problem of violence continues and fuels uncertainty about the future of the epidemic. In the Turgeau neighborhood, near the center of the capital, Doctors Without Borders runs a hospital with an area specializing in care for cholera patients. The manager of the center, Jean Marc Biquet, points out that one of the first cases of the new outbreak arrived here. In recent weeks, those infected are fewer and fewer, which makes him think that the outbreak is controlled, more than 13,000 infected later. The question is what will happen if Haiti returns to a state of paralysis.
On Saturdays, fights for water
Dressed in yellow, Felisa Albert, 42, struggles with her pile of clothes, soap goes, soap comes. Normally, she arrives on Saturdays, but this week she had already accumulated a lot of dirty clothes and she has decided to bring up the visit. Sundays, she says, is the day she comes to carry water. In addition to the water carriers, the woman and the rest of the washers share space with the goats, an emblem of Capila, like the cats in Istanbul, or the dogs in Santiago de Chile.
Albert’s life is a treatise on Caribbean harshness. To wash clothes, he comes in tap-tap, the colorful collective vans that flood Port-au-Prince and push motorcyclists to the limit of their patience. When she comes for water, eight buckets a trip, she and her children walk three hours, there and back. “It’s that up there, in the mountains, where I live, they charge 75 gurds for a bucket of water,” she explains. About 50 cents.
It depends on the money you have, almost always little, the water in Albert’s house is used for cooking, for washing… Sometimes also for drinking. “If there is money, we buy drums,” the woman explains, “but they cost 100 gurds and sometimes there aren’t any,” she explains. When there isn’t any, they take water from the pipe and put an “aquatab” tablet in it to make it drinkable. If they want to be very sure that the water will not make them sick, they boil it too. The cholera in the glen seems something alien. One of those who pass by said that many in Haiti believe that it is a political thing, a government thing.
For Ramon, prevention efforts in situations such as those Haiti has experienced in recent months are crucial. “We try to send messages that are widespread, easy to understand, explain the history of cholera, its biology, a disease that is transmitted by water contaminated by feces, which occurs in many parts of the world, and in a situation of famine it is easy for it to return. there will be anger, etc. ”, he explains. The problem, of course, is that in situations of scarcity like the ones Haiti experiences from time to time, sometimes there is not much other option than the well or the pipeline.