Sustaining Support for Rebuilding Haiti Right

December 23, 2010


By Joanna Pritchard

Flourish magazine, Fall 2010

In April I watched a Haitian boy lay on his belly on an improvised surfboard, paddling it through the turquoise Caribbean waters, the perfect way to cool off on a blazing hot day. The boy had found a large chunk of Styrofoam for a raft, and was joyfully propelling himself around, stark naked, on the waters close to the dock where I stood watching with his friends. A wooden fishing boat with worn blue paint was moored nearby and bobbed on the tide.

The scene was almost idyllic.

One of Port-au-Prince's main drainage canals empties waste into the sea near Wharf Jeremie.

Sadly, the boy was swimming just a few yards from the mouth of a drainage canal spewing garbage and raw sewage into the ocean. The neighborhood around Wharf Jeremie is one of the poorest in Port-au-Prince. Like Cité Soleil, a more famous sister slum, it is located at the lowest edge of Haiti’s capital city where the low-lying land meets the bay. The shoreline all around the boy was clogged with plastic trash and human waste.

The city’s refuse, which rarely finds its way to the landfill, is washed down via a network of tributary canals coalescing into 50-foot-wide channels which finally empty into the ocean. Originally designed for storm water, they are in fact so choked with garbage and sediment that their ability to divert storm waters from vulnerable nearby communities is severely threatened. When they overflow their banks, thousands of the city’s most vulnerable residents find their homes ankle-deep in filth.

A few months later and a couple hundred miles away, I watched my own ten year old son ease off a yellow sea-kayak into the clear, cool water just off Haiti’s northern coast. Through his snorkel I heard his shouts of joy as he encountered for the first time a tropical coral reef and its thousands of gorgeous jewel-like inhabitants. The darting reds, blues, yellows, purples and blacks astonished us both as we witnessed the marvels of a living reef first-hand for the first time. The fun of the distant beach –shell hunting, castle building, and bodysurfing—seemed dull in comparison to this underwater world. Far from urban centers and protected by tourist resorts, these Haitian waters still shelter a stunning diversity of marine life and support modest commercial fishing activities.

It hardly felt like the same island.

A Nation of Contrasts

You wouldn’t guess it, but dive tourism is just one sector investors were seeking to rekindle in the period shortly before the earthquake. Like the rest of the Caribbean, Haiti is home to stunning beaches and fabulous reefs. The neighboring Dominican Republic has a flourishing tourism industry which has created thousands of jobs. Haiti boasts the western hemisphere’s largest fortress, the spectacular Citadelle Laferrière, built in 1805 to ward off Napoleon’s armed forces, perched on a mountaintop and reached best on horseback. Haitian montane forests, protected more by relative inaccessibility than by rules and regulations, still harbor endemic orchids, frogs, birds and bats. Haitian paintings and sculptures are exhibited in Europe’s great galleries. The combination of natural and cultural wealth could make Haiti a significant tourist destination, and in fact growth in the tourism and other sectors were beginning to appear by the end of 2009.

Where Haiti’s environment is stewarded wisely, it is the nation’s best resource. Where it is tended poorly, it becomes its greatest threat.

Haiti's Citadelle is the largest stone fortress in the Western Hemisphere.

Green infrastructure and public health

Driving through the coastal city of Saint Marc in a late October rainstorm, I watched the flow quickly exceed the capacity of the storm drains and run into gullies in the roads etched during the previous downpour. Rain on the mountains encircling the town sped unhindered towards the city and quickly made roads impassable for pedestrians and smaller vehicles.

It wasn’t a tropical storm, just a normal downpour, and yet the landscape could not stand up to it. Around Saint Marc, once-forested hills have long been naked to the elements. Without a protective vegetative covering, mountain topsoil washes away and water is not absorbed. Without absorption, groundwater levels drop and local springs and wells dry up. Without topsoil, farmers cannot grow enough food. Without trees, mudslides and floods destroy homes, infrastructure, livelihoods. And, too often, human lives.

Most development workers know this, but the connection between a healthy environment and human flourishing struck me anew on that day. The fragile survival of the folks in the streets–hopping across puddles, slipping around on motorcycle taxis and huddling in the doorways of flooding homes–is completely and directly dependent on their ecosystem. There is no veil of separation, and no safety net. Their ecosystem is damaged and every rainfall becomes a minor disaster. Trees aren’t just about being “the lungs of the planet”. Trees are about the food supply and the water supply. Trees are about flood protection for farms, homes and urban infrastructure at the bottom of the hill. In a part of the world where hurricanes are part of the package, trees are an essential risk reduction strategy.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was passing through cholera ground zero. That morning, I had seen a letter describing some severe cases of diarrhea apparently linked by water supply. Two days later the outbreak of cholera was confirmed and people started talking about chlorine tablets and learning how to make cholera beds. And about how the time from the onset of diarrhea to death by major organ failure could be as little as two hours.

Cholera is spread when people ingest feces-contaminated water and food. It’s a sanitation problem and a clean water problem. If you were looking for a way to really get the cholera going, you’d want to slosh the contaminated water about as widely as possible. A hurricane in a landscape unable to contain flooding would be effective in spreading cholera. The unfortunate timing of Hurricane Tomas about two weeks after the outbreak must be responsible for many additional deaths and new zones of contamination.

Getting cholera treatment

Perhaps the misery of bringing your loved one for treatment in a makeshift cholera treatment center is only exceeded by the misery of the family who cannot reach one.

I recently saw photos of a ten-year-old boy who had died in the streets of Port-au-Prince. He became ill around 1am but his mother did not realize how seriously. At 10am he died. The photographs documented the arrival of masked, gloved sanitation workers to treat and remove his body. How many times have my own children fallen ill in the middle of the night? I wait it out to see how they do, often passing a sleepless night of tending to them, hoping they’ll feel better in the morning.

The immediate concern for protecting residents of Haiti’s crowded cities, however, has evolved into a realization that remote rural communities are now more at risk because of their distance from critical preventive information, from controlled water supplies and from cholera treatment centers. These circumstances highlight the dreadful, inexcusable rural poverty in Haiti and the vulnerability resulting from it. Cholera is a very treatable disease, one that would not be a problem if it appeared here in the USA. But the lack of clean water and sanitation in rural Haiti makes the present cholera outbreak one of the deadliest.

And here too, historic deforestation amplifies the problem. Roads in rural Haiti, and even national highways between major cities, are regularly washed out by the flash floods that occur when rain falls on barren hillsides. Only the very luckiest cholera victims are close enough to treatment centers to avoid traveling long distances on Haiti’s flood-ravaged roads.

Getting Back to Square One

The earthquake on January 12, 2010 was like pushing a reset button on Haitian development efforts. Government agencies, international organizations, businesses, churches, charities, schools, hospitals and families all suffered devastating losses to their human and physical resources. The trauma of injury, the loss of many loved ones and the scenes of horror remain imprinted in the hearts and minds of survivors. While numbers of refugees have fallen, for most of 2010 over a million people lived their daily lives in tents and under tarps.

Somehow individuals maintain their dignity and sanity in these muddy, foul-smelling conditions. Women and men emerge from the tent cities smartly dressed and ready for work – or for the search for work. Orderly lines form for collecting water. After nights of rain, leaks and sleeplessness, clothes are hung out to dry and exhausted mothers set about finding food for their families. Vendors set up stalls selling food and other necessities on the edges of the camps. Children in immaculate, colorful uniforms head off for school. Barbers and hairdressers operate their small businesses. Tents are impossibly moved closer together to make space for a soccer game. Early one morning I watched a young girl sitting on a curb, absorbed in removing a speck of dirt from her toothbrush.

Haiti’s 2010 list of problems is dramatic: earthquake, cholera, hurricane (and now post-election turmoil and political violence). Haiti is old news now, and donor fatigue has long since become a cliché. [Poor us, we are so tired of hearing about it we’ve even named our malady!] I’ve heard people say it’s a bit too overwhelming to think about, so the thing to do is not to bother. It’s easy to become fatalistic.

If 1000 trucks filled with the rubble of collapsed buildings drove back and forth to the dump every day, it would take 3 years to clear away the rubble left by the earthquake, according to one estimate. In truth, no one knows. In September, it was estimated that just 2% of the debris had been moved. It costs a great deal of money to remove rubble. End result? Just getting to square one is an expensive, lengthy process.

Moving past “go”:stay connected

We dare not limit our vision to getting Haiti back to square one. Speeding Haiti’s recovery requires rebuilding and restoring its infrastructure, but that doesn’t just mean buildings, roads, communications and power grids. It also means rebuilding Haiti’s foundational “green infrastructure”, the reforestation of fragile, denuded watersheds which hold the threat of catastrophic flooding over its populous coastal cities. For when the solid foundation of ecosystem resilience is missing, everything else is threatened as well.

We cannot be satisfied with roads and trees; there are homes to build, jobs to create, agriculture to strengthen. There are teachers, doctors, nurses and community leaders to train. There are schools and hospitals to build. Just as we resist being dependent upon the charity of others, Haitian people would prefer to develop the capacity to support themselves.

In seeking to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, we have the option of supporting work that strengthens the foundations: the ecological foundations, the public infrastructure, and the human resources on which to build a flourishing society. There is much great capacity-building work in Haiti to get excited about in health, education, livelihoods and the environment. But our support can come not only from sending a regular check to the organization we are passionate about, but also making sure that our government and the international community follows through on its commitment to rebuild. The economic and political history of the Americas implicates us in the poverty of other nations. Our economic advantage has flowed from the poverty of others. Officials we elect make foreign policy choices that determine the wealth of other nations. We bear some responsibility for the situation of poor children in Wharf Jeremie who play in the dirty waters of the bay rather than the pristine reef where my son and I swam.

These inequalities are dreadful and the dissonance is yet more jarring at this time of year when we spend much on ourselves and our families. Let’s be emboldened to give even more generously beyond our families’ boundaries, let’s focus on the deep joy that can be brought about by giving more away, let’s see through the shallow temptations of expensive toys and trinkets to the solid, enduring beauty of sharing and connecting our families to something invisible, and yet far more real.

Earthquake Summer Camp

Haiti’s earthquake was a “mega-disaster”, not the norm in the developing world, although the number of people displaced by war and disaster grows annually. Poverty is still the reality for more of God’s people than wealth is, and this is something we want our children to know. We were working in Haiti and it worked out to bring the kids along, but not everyone would or should take their children to a disaster zone for their summer break so they can learn about poverty. We joked with friends about “earthquake summer camp”. We didn’t lecture our kids on poverty or “being grateful for what they have” while we were in Haiti, because it wasn’t necessary. I don’t know if this is related to the fact that we’re now having a great time anticipating Christmas day and opening gifts, without either of the older two (ages 10 and 7) mentioning Christmas lists or asking for anything!

Many American Christians visit poor nations to learn about missions, poverty and development and look for ways to help. Many families also choose to relocate to poorer neighborhoods here in the USA to live in community with those less fortunate and work together for solutions.  Relocation also has the added benefit of reducing the pressure on their children and themselves to “keep up with the Joneses”! And regardless of where they live, any family can maintain a link with the poor by living simply, giving donations as a family activity, finding books and videos that teach about other cultures and living standards, making fair trade purchases, and celebrating heroes of the faith who championed compassion. Create visible, inspiring reminders in your home of what you are doing in the world: posters, photos and scripture verses that remind you of the larger world that lies beyond your door.

Joanna Pritchard spent about six months of 2010 in Haiti assisting in economic recovery efforts for an international organization. In the summer she was joined for two months by her husband Rusty and their three children, ages 10, 7 and 2.

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