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Why tackling Haiti's dire sanitation with investment and innovation is critical
What happens when one of the world's most fragile water and sanitation systems is hit by a 7.0 earthquake? One and a half million more people lose access to safe drinking water or a toilet and are vulnerable to outbreaks of disease. Prior to the disaster, Haiti was the only country in the world where access to improved sanitation had actually decreased. The earthquake has made a dire situation much, much worse.
Amid the plethora of challenges facing Haiti today, sanitation - toilets, human and solid waste disposal and hygiene promotion - is one of the most critical. This is why, six months after the earthquake, the Red Cross Red Crescent is calling on the international community to recognise it as an absolute priority in Haiti's reconstruction and to ensure that sufficient resources are devoted to it.
Although the challenges for sanitation are huge, out of this crisis comes a huge opportunity to leave Haiti better off than before the quake. Collectively, we have the chance to vastly improve a critical part of Haiti's infrastructure, enabling the authorities to provide innovative, sustainable and low-tech systems that give large numbers of people safe and reliable sanitation. In many cases, this may be for the very first time.
Sanitation is all too often overshadowed in attention and resources by its more appealing partner: water. Equal prominence must be given to both in order to secure the health of people affected directly and indirectly by the earthquake.
Half a year after the disaster, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies estimates that around half of the directly affected population has not seen any improvement in sanitation and water supply. The authorities, together with the international aid community, are still months away from meeting these overwhelming needs.
At the same time, progress has been made - impressive considering the scale of the problem. For example, the Red Cross Red Crescent in Haiti is providing 2.4 million litres of water each day, and has built 2,700 latrines. The installation and maintenance of toilets and hygiene promotion has done much to protect many vulnerable people. The focus is now turning to supporting those returning to their homes or moving to transitional shelters to ensure they have access to adequate sanitation. This will be critical for a healthy future.
Despite these achievements, sanitation for most Haitians affected by the earthquake remains considerably worse than before January 12. Much of the sanitation services and two thirds of water trucking are still provided by international partners, including the Red Cross Red Crescent, on behalf of the Haitian authorities. We are all stretched to our capacities and are simply containing a critical situation. This cannot go on and long-term solutions must be found. Funding and support are needed to help build the capacity of the Haitian authorities to provide the improved sanitation people need and deserve.
The answer is not as simple as building more toilets, or teaching people how to improve their hygiene. Anyone unfortunate enough to visit Port-au-Prince's main waste dumping site, a huge area of stinking and slowly smoking garbage, will realise that a larger solution is needed - one that goes far further than maintaining sanitation in camps of hundreds of thousands of displaced people. More innovative solutions to disposing of human waste, and investment to support this, must be found immediately.
Sanitation is undoubtedly a public health issue. But it is also inextricably linked to protection and dignity, particularly for vulnerable groups such as women and children. Imagine waiting all night for the sun to rise to be able to use the toilet, or having to use a plastic bag in privacy because you are too scared to walk a distance to find a private space. Well thought-out sanitation, with the participation of camp residents, can change this all too common reality.
Sanitation in Haiti was dire before the earthquake, which delivered a blow that was just about as bad as it gets. We need to make sure that the impact we have from now on is as good as it gets. There is a huge opportunity to make a difference, but it needs to be made immediately. Now is the time to make the right decisions that can have a profound influence on Haiti's future.