The observance of World Water Day this year with its spotlight on urban emergencies – such has the one in Haiti
The observance of World Water Day this year with its spotlight on urban emergencies, comes at a time when many humanitarian aid and relief organizations are contemplating – in some cases, studying in-depth – the growing trend of large emergencies shifting from rural to urban settings.
Increasingly erratic weather patterns, which some link to man-made climate change, are causing droughts and floods that are driving millions to leave the countryside for cities.
In Haiti, in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake, Concern Worldwide had to tackle most of these issues in highly challenging circumstances, with Port-au-Prince qualifying as a highly impoverished urban setting experiencing a major emergency albeit in extraordinary circumstances. The city was one of the most challenging environments for water and sanitation before the earthquake; the massive disaster only made the situation exponentially more complicated.
We had to respond quickly and accurately, which was enormously difficult. Our efforts were hampered by huge logistical challenges, including impossible traffic and, especially toward the latter part of the year, unrest and frequent demonstrations, and the further challenge of the serious cholera outbreak.
The earthquake left countless people without access to basic services such as clean water and toilets. Today, the bulk of our beneficiaries live in camps, where the logistics of supplying water and sanitation are relatively straightforward. But the job is costly and cannot be sustained indefinitely. Families need to return home or be given temporary shelters that all need clean water and toilets.
Here are some numbers to show progress has been made: About six months ago there were locations in the city where a single latrine was serving 2,000 people per day! Getting this down number down to below 800 – to stave of serious disease outbreaks such as cholera – was a major struggle. Yet, we are now meeting the standard of 50 persons per latrine. For things to work long-term, we are putting a lot of focus on the engagement, training and capacity-building of local communities to take responsibility for the water infrastructure.
We currently supply an estimated 3,000 gallons a day via water truck to each of 28 locations in Port-au-Prince, serving 75,000 people; we are also in the final stages of 50 so-called block latrines – each with 12 doors – in multiple locations; we have responsibility for waste disposal for approx 540 latrines around the city. In the 18 camps where we work, we remove almost 400,000 gallons of waste every month.
The people’s suffering and our responsibility to come to their aid make up the real story. The fate of one family of eight has stuck with me in a powerful way. Parents Janice Simeone and Dieu Puissant and their six children – made homeless by the earthquake – were living in a ramshackle tent in the Place Boyer spontaneous settlement, smack in a downtown Port-au-Prince slum. Utter lack of hygiene and overcrowded, dirty sanitation led to four of the children and Dieu getting violently ill with diarrhea and vomiting – the warning signs of cholera. Luckily, we were able to get them all treatment in a hospital.
Kudos to the UN for putting the spotlight on these urban water facts:
Already half of the world’s population lives in the city. In two decades, their number will grow to 60 percent, or 5 billion people. And 95 percent of the urban population growth in the next decades will take place in the developing world, whose cities grow by an average of 5 million new residents every month. Every second, the world’s urban population grows by two people.
Urban slums pose a particular problem for the humanitarian aid community. The people there already suffer chronic poverty and all its attendant ills, including lack of reliable, consistent and convenient access to water and hygienic facilities, health care, and nutrition. Concern has embarked on a study of the slums in Kenya to develop and empirically test a set of emergency indicators for urban slum environment – to determine when chronic poverty becomes an urban humanitarian crisis.
This exploding urban population growth creates unprecedented challenges – with the supply of and access to safe water and proper sanitation being crucial for the maintenance of good health. Common massive killers of children under five in the city – malaria (once thought to be a strictly rural disease), pneumonia, diarrhea, worm infestation and cholera – are linked to dirty and stagnant water. Across the board, around the world, 2 million tons of human waste is disposed of in water sources. Lack of wastewater treatment and drainage facilities – especially in the developing world – leads to dangerous pollution of the ground-and-surface water resources.
Crisis or not, the 827.6 slum dwellers in the developing world – 62 percent of them living in sub-Saharan Africa – are often lacking adequate drinking water and proper sanitary facilities. Twenty-seven percent of the developing world’s urban population does not have piped water in their houses; and 493 million people in cities share their sanitation facilities – in 1990 that number stood at 259 million. Worldwide, one in four city residents, or 794 million people, lives without access to updated sanitation facilities.
To make matters worse, the poor pay more: someone in the slums in Nairobi pays five to seven times more for a gallon of water than the average North American citizen. Elsewhere in the developing world the urban poor may pay up to 50 times more than their richer neighbors because they are forced to pay from private vendors. Plus, an estimated more than 132,000 gallons of usable typically leaks away each year in the world’s mega cities – saving this amount of water would be sufficient for the yearly needs of 10 million to 20 million in such a mega city.
Our numbers in Haiti are but tiny figures against the backdrop of the growing global water crisis, of course. But not all is doom and gloom. The Third UN World Water Development report, published in 2009, insists that the world’s water problems are manageable, and that the required knowledge, experience and technology are already in place to create a durable water infrastructure, sanitation and waste disposal infrastructure, as well as the curbing of pollution and adequate protection against flooding. If only the world’s leaders would put their minds to it. At all levels of government – national, regional, local – water must become a priority.
Thomas Fergusson is a water engineer for Concern.