For the past six months, home for 45-year-old Joseph Brunel has been a blue tarpaulin shelter. A resident of Carrefour, at the epicenter of the earthquake that devastated Haiti earlier this year, Brunel has tried his best to make his temporary abode cozy: he's retrieved the mattresses from his collapsed house and placed a wooden door frame at the entrance to the claustrophobic space. But despite his best efforts, Brunel says, it's difficult to care for his six children in these conditions.
"We don't find food. Our tents flood when it rains," he says. "But we do find water easily." Partly as a result of criticism of the slow pace of recovery efforts, drinking water may be now more accessible to many of Haiti's poorest than it was before the earthquake that left 1.5 million people homeless.
Before the disaster, Brunel says, he would have to spend 25 gourdes (about 62 cents) every day for a 5-gal. water jug about 80% of Haitians live on less than $2 a day. Now, he says, there's drinking water available for free right outside his tent.
Prior to the quake, about half of Haiti's urban population had access to tap water, according to a 2006 demographic and health survey conducted by the World Health Organization and UNICEF. Since the quake, community kiosks selling water have been replaced by water trucks and boreholes where children fill buckets to the brim and carry them, carefully balanced on their heads, back to their tents. The United Nations WASH (Water and Sanitation) cluster says relief efforts now meet the water-supply needs for 1.2 million people.
Aid groups report that they are distributing five liters of drinkable water per person per day, which would be only one-third the recommended minimum per person used in humanitarian assistance programs. But in Carrefour, residents find enough water to drink, wash, bathe and cook with, says Gerson Edee, 35, leader of a camp for 4,500 people established in a sports center.
"If there wasn't any water, the people would be in the streets rioting. The first thing people need is water. Water is life," says Edee, wiping sweat off his brow under the heavy sun.
While the availability of potable water may have quelled political upheaval, it has not entirely allayed concerns about the spread of disease. The U.N. reports that there has been one minor outbreak of typhoid, a waterborne disease, with 45 cases confirmed in the Port-au-Prince area of Terra Accra.
"They immediately took measures with health and hygiene promotion," says Dr. Dana Van Alphen, coordinator of the U.N. Health Cluster. "And within a week, the numbers dropped." Given overcrowding in the camps, says Van Alphen, the level of disease has been lower than what had been anticipated, partly because of the efficient management of the water supply.
The aid group Oxfam distributes more than 8 million liters of water each day, mostly by trucking it to major camps in Port-au-Prince. Oxfam public-health team leader Raissa Azzalini says the organization monitors the chlorination process of the water and tests every water truck on a daily basis, which has helped avoid contamination. She adds that much of Oxfam's success in water distribution has come via a partnership with Haiti's public-water-works system CAMEP. "CAMEP is not perfect. It was not perfect before the earthquake. But I think CAMEP is trying to do something positive," says Azzalini.
CAMEP dates back to the Duvalier dictatorship in 1964 and in theory services the 3.5 million residents of the Port-au-Prince metropolitan region. It has been bolstered and supported for decades by the World Bank and nongovernmental organizations. Asselin Appollon, technical coordinator for CAMEP in Carrefour, says the arrangement with Oxfam gives the Haitian utility the fuel required for water pumps and helps with daily logistics. He welcomes the partnership that began after Oxfam approached CAMEP to offer support which he says was in all-too-rare contrast with aid organizations that parachute into Haiti and begin operating without approaching existing Haitian structures like CAMEP. "There are nongovernmental groups who come and do a bit of work and then leave. We don't know where they disappear off to," says Appollon.
But while the system established in the wake of the quake is currently working well, Appollon admits that delivering water by truck is too costly to be sustainable. "It's difficult to form an exit strategy, because we don't know how long people will be in camps," says Azzalini of reducing reliance on trucked water. "That's the challenge for the next six months."