Haiti: living in fear of sickness and death

ACT Alliance’s Norwegian partner fights cholera with clean water

November 19, 2010

CITÉ SOLEIL, Haiti

Hurricane Tomas was merciful as it swept past Haiti. The country was spared a direct hit, but torrential rain has caused widespread flooding and a heightened risk of the spread of disease among the already pressed population. An epidemic of cholera threatens the island nation already devastated by last January’s earthquake.

“The water is knee-deep inside our houses, and we have nothing. What kind of life is this?” ask residents of Cité Soleil, one of the largest slum areas of the country’s capital, Port au Prince. 

“Last night I slept with water right up to the edge of my mattress. Nobody deserves to live in such conditions. This is no life,” says Rosemene Princiville from the entrance to her house, a tattered tent. Clothes and a few other belongings float in the three-feet deep, stinking floodwater that has engulfed the surrounding area. In the middle of the tent, a single bed stands like an island in the brown filth. 

We are in Rue Germain, one of the countless tent camps of Cité Soleil, just outside the center of Port au Prince. This is one of the poorest areas of the city, where more than 400,000 people live in extreme poverty. 

Here there are no sewers, no electricity, no healthcare, no schools and no shops.

Until three years ago, the area was run by violent gangs who terrorized, stole and murdered while the police, too afraid to intervene, looked on.

Now, thanks to the armed presence of United Nations peacekeeping soldiers, local authorities have managed to regain some degree of control over the area. 

The poverty however remains the same, and the earthquake that struck the island in January did nothing to improve the situation. Neither, needless to say, do the great quantities of water that have now flooded the area. 

“When we heard a hurricane was on its way, we didn’t know what to do. All we have is this shack, and we have nowhere else to go,” says Junior Fortune, assisting his pregnant wife Micheline Merilus through the yellow-brown water. 

“Just look around. I’m worried that Micheline will fall ill with cholera or malaria. We’re expecting our first child soon, but what kind of future can we offer in conditions like this?” 

Very few organizations choose to work in Cité Soleil, which, according to the U.N., is among the most violent and dangerous areas in the western world.

ACT Alliance member Norwegian Church Aid has, through local partner organizations, been able to help many thousands of the most vulnerable here through the provision of clean drinking water, latrines and showers. The ACT Alliance also includes among its members Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.

“Given the looming threat of cholera in these conditions, we are doing what we can to spread information as widely as possible about ways in which each individual can help prevent themselves from becoming infected,” says Randi Jahnsen, a member of Norwegian Church Aid’s rapid response team. 

An experienced water engineer, Jahnsen is relieved that the hurricane caused less damage than was initially feared. Nonetheless, she is very concerned for those that are still living in tents, protected from the elements by little more than a thin layer of plastic sheeting or cardboard.

Almost a year since the earthquake struck, 1.3 million people still have no better alternative. 

“Torrential rain has caused flooding in several of the camps where we are working. Even if we manage to keep cholera at bay, the standing water provides a perfect breeding ground for malaria. The threat of disease and the appalling living conditions are sources of great frustration to the population here. Many people have already been stretched to the limit of what they can bear. A large proportion of those we meet have little or no hope for the future,” says Jahnsen. 

“We just want to get away from here, but there’s nowhere we can go. The children have it the worst,” says Enide Terrinble, her 10-month old grandchild Jessi in her arms. 

“What will become of this little one?” 

Mother-of-four Velia Dorcé stirs the contents of her charred pot with care. She has built a little ring of stones around her fire to keep the water out. A few paces away stands a tall wall several feet high. On the other side of the wall, the water level is even higher.

The landowner has announced that he is going to drill a hole in the wall to drain the water off his land and attract new tenants to this landscape of mud and water. The topsoil is already saturated, and as the rain pours down, conditions continue to deteriorate. 

“Last night, many of the men had nowhere to sleep because there was nowhere to lie down. They stood up all night long. If they let water in from the other side of the wall, we’ll drown. There’s nowhere we can go,” says Dorcé, smiling stoically through the tears in her eyes. 

Arne Grieg Riisnæs is communication advisor for ACT Alliance member Norwegian Church Aid. 

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