Haiti in the time of Cholera: A Letter from Port-au-Prince

December 15, 2010


by Rusty Pritchard

[Ed. note: This article is part of our series of weekly reflections, called Deep Down Things, published on Wednesdays.]

How long, LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?

- Psalm 13:1-2

2010 Haitian presidential election street scene.

A country that has already experienced an earthquake, a hurricane, and a cholera epidemic this year, Haiti is now experiencing tension and violence in the wake of its presidential election results.

These words could have been written in Haiti in 2010. After an earthquake, cholera outbreak, and hurricane, now Haiti is dealing with a highly problematic election and post-election turmoil.

I arrived in Port-au-Prince right after the election, and managed to travel through much of the north of the country by scooting through troublesome bottlenecks during the brief times that roads were open.

The raging cholera epidemic is taking its toll on families and on responders. Maps that show red zones where the cholera outbreak is the worst are probably wrong—the white areas are merely those places that have not been visited and are too hard to get too. If they’re too hard to get to, that means they’re too hard to get from, if you are a victim who needs to reach an emergency treatment center. Broad sweeps of the countryside are affected by cholera, but are on their own in dealing with it. Cholera has already sickened an estimated 91,000 people and killed over 2,000. I suspect the real numbers are much higher.

A post-election uproar
On December 7 at around 9:00 p.m. the preliminary presidential election results were announced, and the entire country seemed to erupt in violence. In every province, angry protesters took to the street, enraged by the third place finish of singer Michel “Sweet Mickey” Martelly, a favorite on the streets, which would prevent him from competing in the runoff in January. Equally maddening to protesters was the slim margin of victory for second-place finisher Jude Celestin, the candidate supposedly favored by current President René Préval. The first place finisher was former first lady Mirlande Manigat.

The day after the election, the roads all over the country were barricaded by protesters piling (and hurling) stones, burning tires, and upending cars. I heard gunshots and explosions all day long near the home where I’ve been staying, and have seen and breathed the black, acrid smoke from burning rubber tires.

I’ve got a decent place to stay until the protests subside. But for cholera victims desperate to get to the CTCs (cholera treatment centers) set up around the country, the protests are deadly. Sometimes only a few minutes remain to help the severely dehydrated people who make their way to the centers. Cholera can kill within a day, so I expect there’ll be a spike in deaths as a result of these violent protests.

The root of Haiti’s woes

Elderly Haitian couple.

Unhealthy watersheds have created unhealthy and threatening living conditions for Haitian citizens.

I’m in Haiti for my third stint this year doing environmental evaluations of development projects around the country. Many of these projects were done to give short-term employment to Haitians displaced by the earthquake, creating long-term benefits. The projects I get to see are beautifully built or renovated school buildings; necessary bridges and roads that help farmers get their produce to market; renovated irrigation systems that let farmers get a second crop in each year; water wells and spring cappings; green spaces, gardens, and public plazas in the worst slums; and sanitation projects that help protect clean water (i.e. latrines, which are wonderful to see when they’re working).

Where these projects work out the best is where the structures are protected from floods and erosion, and where clean water supplies are protected. That happens when the watersheds above them are covered with healthy forests and stable slopes. I get to see and evaluate soil and water conservation projects covering entire mountain valleys, which is especially exciting. I see the work of reforestation and watershed rehabilitation as a kind of insurance for all the other development work that goes on in places like Haiti.

Last week I visited a school in a dusty valley in a northern province that had a newly constructed water tank to provide students a way to wash their hands, to store drinking water and water for cooking lunches, and to provide a source of water for cleaning. Unfortunately, because of rampant deforestation in the uplands, the spring that used to supply the water had become intermittent and then gone dry completely. The beautiful new reservoir: empty. The latrines: filthy. Water for washing hands: laboriously hauled from an alternate water source in limited quantities.

In another site, I found a much-needed road already threatened by the ever-increasing torrents rushing off deforested hillsides. Instead of soaking in and recharging springs and wells, the water now runs off quickly and carries with it soil…and newly constructed roads. In other places, I saw projects where most of the budget had to be spent building riverbank protection systems of rock and masonry walls to protect irrigation canal intakes and bridges from the flash floods caused by past deforestation of the hills.

Deforestation and cholera
The cholera-causing bacterium, Vibrio cholerae, persists in the environment for a long time, and gets there when waste is

Forest with sun shining through trees.

"When watersheds are restored, they provide insurance for all the other elements of human health and economic and social development."

washed into rivers and streams that supply drinking water. Flooding makes the problem much worse, enabling the disease to spread from river system to river system. To the extent that deforestation worsens flooding, a lack of trees is directly connected to the spread of cholera.

The cholera bacteria can be dramatically reduced by filtering water, even with cloth layered in multiple layers and place carefully over the mouth of a water vessel (and a dose of bleach can get whatever gets through). Filtering is exactly what happens on the landscape when vegetation and soil conservation structures slow down water and let it soak in. By the time the water reaches wells and springs, a healthy landscape has done much of the work of cleaning it. A degraded landscape fails to do that.

Healthier watersheds equal healthier people. When organizations (like Plant With Purpose, for example) restore degraded watersheds, they provide insurance for all the other elements of human health and economic and social development. When that happens, it’s a sign that the Lord is not forgetting Haiti, is not hiding His face, and will not let the enemy triumph.

Rusty Pritchard is co-founder and president of Flourish.

This piece is adapted from a post originally published on the Plant With Purpose blog. All images courtesy Plant With Purpose.

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