Relief officials scrambled to confront a sanitation crisis that could spread malaria, cholera and other diseases throughout the chaotic camps packed with hundreds of thousands of Haitian earthquake survivors.
Shortages of food, clean water, adequate shelter and latrines are creating a potential spawning ground for epidemics in a country with an estimated one million people made homeless by the January 12 quake.
Yesterday, a single portable toilet served about 2,000 people in a sprawling camp across a street from the collapsed National Palace, forcing most to use a gutter that runs next to an area where vendors cook food and mothers struggle to bathe their children.
“We wash the vegetables first from water brought in by trucks, but a lot of times the water isn’t clean,” said Marie Marthe, 45, cooking a large pot of collard greens, carrots and goat as flies gathered on her daughter’s diaper. “We don’t have any choice.”Survivors erected flimsy shelters of cloth, cardboard or plastic in nearly every open space left in the capital.
Women wait until night to bathe out of buckets, shielding their bodies behind damaged cars and trucks. Water is recycled - used first for brushing teeth, then for washing food, then for bathing.
“My one-year-old has had diarrhoea for a week now, probably because of the water,” said Bernadel Perkington, 40. “When the earthquake happened I had 500 gourdes (about 15 US dollars), which I was using for clean water for her. The money for that ran out yesterday.”
The crowding and puddles of filthy water that breed mosquitoes began to spread diseases such as dengue and malaria, which were already endemic in Haiti. Some hospitals report that half the children they treat have malaria, though the rainy season - the peak time for mosquitoes - won’t start until April.
Tight quarters also expose people to cholera, dysentery, tetanus and other diseases.
Dr Louise Ivers, Haiti clinical director for Partners in Health, said she fears “a mass outbreak of measles, which would really be potentially devastating for a camp where there are 10,000 people living”.
Her organisation has operated in Haiti for more than two decades and has about 4,000 medical workers in the country.
The UN, Oxfam and other aid organisations have started to dig latrines for 20,000 people, said Silvia Gaya, Unicef’s coordinator for water and sanitation, even if that’s a small fraction of the 700,000 people that officials said were living in the camps last week.
“In some parks, there is no physical space” even to dig latrines, Ms Gaya said.
Dr. Jon Andrus, deputy director of Pan American Health Organisation, said nearly three dozen organisations were joining the UN-led effort to build latrines and handle solid waste disposal.
Authorities also plan to build more permanent resettlement camps with plumbing and sewage, while PAHO is working with Haiti’s government to chlorinate water in collapsible tanks.