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Plumbing’s response to the Haiti crisis 3 February 2010
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On 12 January 2010, the small island nation of Haiti was rocked by an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0. The tragedy brought to attention the poverty, lack of water and basic sanitation and desolation in which the people of this once popular nation reside.

The problems exacerbated by this natural disaster are deep rooted and while good intentions and fundraisers go a long way to rebuilding basic structures, the world needs to look at long term solutions to issues such as sanitation so that infrastructure is also attended to.

Unfortunately, this is more difficult than it sounds as the World Health Organisation (WHO) maintains strict rules about entry onto a roster which includes both specialized training by WHO and an ability to travel at very short notice. While there are many water supply engineers on the roster, according to the World Plumbing Council (WPC) there doesn’t seem to be any plumbing engineers on the list which means that the plumbing industry has no direct mechanism to provide support.

Until the plumbing industry is allowed to make comment, it seems those sanitation solutions may be a long way off.

Water sanitation is a problem that affects many of the world’s poorer nations. 2.6 billion people lack adequate sanitation, leading to five million deaths per year. The biggest problems are in the rural areas where slum dwellers are deprived of basic city services such as sewage treatment and water delivered through pipes.

Even if water is available through ground, spring or river, there is no infrastructure to farm it. As resource management is a political issue, and with politics in Haiti somewhat undermined, this causes further problems.

Bryan Schaaf spent more than two years, from 2000, working in the Haitian Appalachia with the Peace Corps. Schaaf gained experience with water projects taking note of what worked and what failed. “Haiti is strewn with water pumps that no longer work,” he said.

In an interview Schaaf conducted with he says the “sanitation situation in Haiti is pretty deplorable. If you live in a city you have better access to sanitation without a doubt than if you live in a rural area. Imagine a community that has access to water, but doesn’t have access to sanitation, that’s pretty much a recipe for not having access to clean water.”

Schaaf put this down to the absence of government leadership. He said that while urban areas have programs, rural areas are neglected and there is no sound vision for what water systems should look like.

Mention was also made that if you want to talk about water, you have to talk about sanitation and hygiene. “If you are not doing that you are not getting you’re maximum impact from your water project,” Schaaf says. “It’s important to think about sustainability from the onset.”

This is exactly what aid organisations and governments must do in light of the current Haitian situation. In developing countries such as Haiti, up to 90% of diarrheal illness, a leading cause of death can be attributed to unsafe water and poor sanitation.

The statistics in Haiti present some calamitous results. Twenty-nine percent of Haiti’s total population (2.3 million) does not have access to potable water and this was before the earthquake. Even when a public water system is available, many have to travel long distances to collect the water and still it has to be purified. In addition, potable water is not free, for the 80% of Haitians who live in abject poverty the cost of clean drinking water is a significant challenge.

In the past, organisations such as International Child Care have dug wells to provide potable water for entire communities. They have also constructed latrines for individual families. The local community is responsible to provide materials such as sand, gravel and blocks, while the ICC provides the blueprints and supplies such as cement, tin for the roof and PVC pipe. The ICC then pays local labourers to construct latrines under the supervision of an ICC employee.

According to sustainable access to such basic necessities will be the area of greatest need as Haiti recovers.