In Haiti, relief agencies rush to meet desperate need for water

A girl dressed in her school uniform is treated for an arm injury at General Hospital in Port-au-Prince. The hospital has been deluged with patients. A critical problem is the lack of fresh water in Haiti, along with dehydration and water-borne illnesses.
A girl dressed in her school uniform is treated for an arm injury at General Hospital in Port-au-Prince. The hospital has been deluged with patients. A critical problem is the lack of fresh water in Haiti, along with dehydration and water-borne illnesses. (Nikki Kahn/the Washington Post)
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By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 16, 2010

Port-au-Prince, Haiti's densely populated capital, is home to more than 2 million people, each of whom, under normal circumstances, needs to drink about a gallon of clean water every day, just to survive. Basic needs such as washing and cooking add another three gallons or so per person each day.

Those numbers illustrate the stark crisis looming as international relief agencies race to blunt the next phase of the disaster in Haiti -- a shortage of clean water that threatens survivors with potentially fatal dehydration and massive outbreaks of water-borne diseases.

"Once water supply is disrupted or contaminated, this could complicate the situation," said Jon K. Andrus, deputy director of the Pan American Health Organization, an arm of the World Health Organization that is helping orchestrate the response. "Water is top on our list."

The agency has established a makeshift headquarters near the airport and opened a field office in the Dominican Republic, about 90 minutes from Port-au-Prince, to "serve as a bridge for the management of supplies and medical relief teams," Andrus said.

But clean water is perhaps the highest priority because water is more important than food for human survival.

"The human body lives a lot longer without food than without water," said Thomas Kirsch, co-director of the Center for Refugee and Disaster Response at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore. "Without food, we have fat stores we can cannibalize. But there is no water store."

Four gallons a day usually suffice if temperatures are moderate and there is no unusual stress. In less favorable conditions, an individual's need can be greater.

"Water is one of the basic necessities for drinking and cooking and sanitation to maintain appropriate hygiene in situations where you can have rampant infectious disease," said Kellogg J. Schwab, director of the Hopkins Center of Water and Health.

In addition to causing death from dehydration, a lack of clean water can trigger outbreaks of dysentery, cholera, typhoid fever and other illnesses.

"Diarrheal outbreaks could pose a huge problem," Andrus said.

The water purification and sanitation systems of an impoverished nation such as Haiti are typically old, poorly maintained and reliant on aging pipes and trucks for distribution. After the earthquake, the fragile system that existed was probably devastated as pipes broke, bathrooms were destroyed, pumps lost power and existing water supplies were contaminated.

"They don't have a good system in place. It has a lot of problems in the normal situation," said Luiz Galvao, PAHO's manager of sustainable development and environmental health. "Now it will be worse -- much worse."


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