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Haiti: bringing water and restoring dignity to the elderly

18-03-2010 Feature

The elderly and infirm are among the most vulnerable of the many tens of thousands of people living in crowded, often squalid camps in Port-au-Prince. The ICRC's Jessica Barry has been to see how some of them are faring.

©ICRC/J. Barry/ht-e-00613 
Camp in the compound of the Asile municipal nursing home, Port-au-Prince. Water storage tanks were installed in the Asile camp by the Spanish and Haitian Red Cross societies 

©ICRC/J. Barry/ht-e-00614 
Asile camp, Port-au-Prince. There is little privacy in the Asile camp for the elderly residents of the nursing home 

©ICRC/J. Barry 
Asile camp, Port-au-Prince. Young camp residents play dominoes in a rare open space between tents 

©ICRC/J. Barry/ht-e-00612 
Asile camp, Port-au-Prince. The elderly residents of Asile nursing home have been spending most of their time outdoors since the quake 

©ICRC/J. Barry/ht-e-00611 
Asile camp, Port-au-Prince. The latrines will be built with wood and corrugated iron 

In a camp sheltering earthquake victims located in the compound of the Asile municipal nursing home in Port-au-Prince, children crowd around large, black water tanks installed by the Spanish and Haitian Red Cross societies. The spot is a favourite for kids, who come to play while helping their gossiping mothers fill their buckets. The water supply is limited, and what the women carry back to their tents must meet all their family's daily needs for drinking, cooking and washing clothes.

 Bringing a modicum of privacy to nursing home residents  

In such cramped surroundings, privacy is an unattainable dream. Taking a bath in a small plastic bowl might be fun for a toddler, but imagine what it is like for the elderly and infirm, trying to wash and keep clean with only minimal water. And how much harder must it be for people confined to wheelchairs.

To help address this problem, the ICRC is installing 50 ventilated improved pit latrines in the Asile compound, some of them adapted for the nursing home's wheelchair users. Too fearful to stay indoors, the elderly residents have been spending much of their time since the earthquake out in the garden of their previously tranquil nursing home, sitting in the shade, or propped up in their wheelchairs amid the crush and noise going on around them. Once finished, the toilets, which are sturdy and made of wood and corrugated iron, will provide these extremely vulnerable old folk with a modicum of privacy in the midst of a camp that is seething with people.

 Building up a sustainable supply of water  

In the camps that have sprung up all over Port-au-Prince since the devastating earthquake of 12 January, people's access to water has slowly improved. Water trucks ply the parks, where people are living squashed like sardines, and water bladders and water storage tanks like the ones in the Asile compound have been installed.

By contrast, the provision of water in slum neighbourhoods of Port-au-Prince such as Cité-Soleil – home to over 200,000 people – has always been chaotic. The ICRC has been working in Cité-Soleil, together with the Haitian Red Cross, since 2004. For the past four years ICRC water engineers, in partnership with the Port-au-Prince water board, have been upgrading the shantytown's water distribution network.

When the earthquake struck, the water network in Cité-Soleil took a direct hit. The water tower cracked, and now needs substantial repair. The piped water supply was also partially damaged. The ICRC quickly installed six water bladders as a stopgap measure, serving the basic needs of around 9,000 people, pending a decision on who would repair the water tower, and how.

The aim of the ICRC's partnership with the water board is to promote more efficient and sustainable water distribution. Achieving this aim requires a long-term commitment to changing attitudes with regard to the supply, use and management of water. The partnership intends not only to improve people's access to clean water, but also to contribute to a comprehensive drive towards strengthening preventive health care in Port-au-Prince's shanty areas.

In addition to working alongside the water authorities in Cité-Soleil, the ICRC is also supporting grassroots water committees in their efforts to repair and maintain the water networks. Among other things, it is providing spare parts and too ls, helping to stop leaks in the pipes, giving the fuel needed to run pumps and paying salaries of some workers for a limited period.

In contrast to the emergency assistance being given in the Asile compound, the work going on in Cité-Soleil is long-term.

 Restoring dignity  

Back in the nursing home compound, children race about and play. An improvised market selling fruit, vegetables and cheap household trinkets is crowded. Intense-looking young men play furiously at dominoes in a rare open space between tents. Teenagers mill around doing nothing. The elderly residents of the nursing home doze, skewed sideways in their wheelchairs. Near where the water gatherers are congregated a group of women sit, doing their washing. In the middle of the camp, the workers building the latrines are seated on the concrete foundations beside a line of deeply dug pits awaiting their supervisor. The toilets, once they are ready, will help restore some of the dignity the old folk lost along with so much else, at the quiet ending of their lives, when the earthquake struck.


Facts & Figures

  Since the 12 January earthquake, the ICRC has:  
  • enabled 29,000 names to be registered on www.familylinks.icrc.org/haiti (the ICRC's site for restoring links between family members) including the names of 6,100 people who wanted to tell their families that they were alive;
  • worked with the Haitian Red Cross and the Haitian government to reunite four children aged between two and twelve with their families, while continuing to handle the cases of 70 other unaccompanied children with a view to reuniting them with their families as well;
  • visited some 700 detainees in the main police stations of Port-au-Prince and in Cap-Haïtien Prison;
  • supplied 20 tonnes of food, to feed 4,000 detainees for three weeks;
  • carried out emergency repairs to the sanitation system, plumbing and kitchen of Port-au-Prince Prison, with other work still in progress;
  • supported 10 Haitian Red Cross first-aid posts in Port-au-Prince and two in Petit-Goâve, at which first-aiders have so far treated over 17,300 people;
  • regularly supplied medicines to the Rosalie Rendu maternity/paediatric centre in Cité Soleil, to which over 500 children under five come for consultations every day;
  • supported a major vaccination campaign carried out by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the authorities in Martissant, Bel-Air and Canapé-Vert, as a result of which over 137,000 adults and children are now protected against German measles, whooping cough, tetanus and diphtheria;
  • provided training in the management of corpses to 21 staff from the State university hospital mortuary and four volunteers from the Haitian Red Cross, and supplied over 2,000 body bags to the mortuary and other relief organizations;
  • distributed drinking water to 18,000 people in Port-au-Prince every day and helped the authorities to repair the water network that serves the 207,000 inhabitants of Cité Soleil;
  • distributed essential items to over 20,000 people in Port-au-Prince, Léogane, Jacmel and Cayes, and distributed 50 tonnes of food to over 4,000 people in Delmas 60 and Primature (Port-au-Prince);
  • financed refuse collection at seven sites housing some 45,000 displaced persons and installed 60 latrines in the camps in Delmas.