U.N. Eyes Improving Sanitation In Haiti's Capital

Aid agencies in Haiti are taking steps to reduce the risk of epidemics that could sweep through the densely populated tent camps in Port-au-Prince. Their goal: to improve sanitation. The U.N. says it wants to install 25,000 pit privies around the capital. As of now, the number is closer to 1,000.

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In Haiti, food and water are no longer the primary concern. Supplies have become fairly reliable. So, aid agencies are now thinking and doing more about another big concern, the risk of epidemics that could sweep through densely populated tent camps. And a key to avoiding that is to improve sanitation. The UN says it ultimately wants to install 25,000 pit privies around the capital. Right now the number is closer to 1,000.

NPR's Richard Harris reports from Port-au-Prince.

RICHARD HARRIS: People without toilets can't simply wait for them and the result is pretty obvious, even with your eyes closed, when you cross a drainage ditch leading to the camp in a neighborhood called Delmas 6. The French Red Cross estimates that 8,000 people live in this settlement. Clenin Jenlua(ph) lives under a blanket with her children. She can fetch water from the Red Cross and she is frying up some chicken on a charcoal stove. But she is missing something that we all take for granted.

Ms. CLENIN JENJUA: (Through Translator) We don't have a place to take a bath. We have no facilities, no toilet.

HARRIS: This isn't simply an inconvenience. Poor sanitation is a formula for disaster. Diarrheal diseases like typhoid spread easily once they take hold. And as we walk through the camp, we come across a nurse, Florence Ocshaniac(ph) who says she's seeing those diseases now.

Ms. FLORENCE OCSHANIAC (Nurse, Port-au-Prince): (Through Translator) Our situation is very poor around here. When the children drink the water they have diarrhea, they vomit and they get sicker and sicker.

HARRIS: The water from the Red Cross tank trucks starts out clean, but germs from the sick children can spread quickly. Some help for this camp, at least, is coming just a few hundreds yards away.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign Language Spoken)

(Soundbite of hammering wood)

HARRIS: I'm standing in what may have once been a schoolyard or, in fact, may have once been a school. It's fresh brown now. And a large crew of men is putting together a latrine. A backhoe was here the day before and it dug trenches about six feet deep. These men are now assembling a frame of wood and grey plastic that will turn the trenches into 100 pit toilets.

This activity is happening all around town, near the many tent camps. Sanitation officials figure they need 9,000 minimum to support the number of people in the camps and the projects are still far short of that number. If you ask Dr. Roc Magloire, who is the nation's chief of epidemiology, this problem can't be addressed fast enough.

Dr. ROC MAGLOIRE (Chief Epidemiologist, Haiti): (Foreign language spoken)

HARRIS: He says the condition of sanitation even before the catastrophe was bad. Port-au-Prince is one of the largest cities in the world without a central sewer system. People use pit toilets or septic systems. As a result, diarrheal diseases were a leading cause of illness before the quake among young children, where they can be deadly. We asked him if hospitals are reporting a lot of diarrheal disease now.

Dr. MAGLOIRE: Yes, yes. (Foreign language spoken).

HARRIS: But he says it's not the usual cases of disease that worry him. He fears an epidemic. Cholera is rare in Haiti but if it takes hold, well, Magloire just looks up at the ceiling as he contemplates that. David Delienne at UNICEF says sanitation is now a top priority.

Mr. DAVID DELIENNE (UNICEF): We are all well aware of the situation, of the danger of the situation. And so the issue is to accelerate. And, you know, there was this deadline of the rainy season and so on. So all partners are putting hands together toward, you know, reaching these number of latrines needed in the camps.

HARRIS: The rainy season is just a couple of months away. Delienne is worried about that because when water starts flowing down the hillsides it washes down whatever is in its way.

Mr. DELIENNE : And, you know, you have some camps up and others down. So, you see the type of water with which we will go wash the other camps and so on. So, it would be very good to manage, to control the situation before.

HARRIS: The latrines will clearly help this situation but the nurse back in the camp says they aren't going to solve the problem.

Ms. OCSHANIAC: (Foreign language spoken).

HARRIS: She says it's no good to have a toilet five or 10 minutes away if the person who needs to use it is a toddler with a badly upset tummy.

Richard Harris, NPR News, Port-au-Prince.

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