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Haiti earthquake: scrambling for water

29-01-2010 Feature

The ICRC and the Haitian Red Cross have recently set up four water distribution points in Cité Soleil. For many of the shantytown's poorest residents, this is the only clean water available.

  See also new video:
Haiti: water for earthquake survivors  


  ©ICRC/M. Kokic/ht-e-00561    
  Cité Soleil, Port-au-Prince. The ICRC sets up a water distribution point with the help of Haitian Red Cross volunteers.    

  ©ICRC/M. Kokic/ht-e-00563    
  Cité Soleil, Port-au-Prince. ICRC staff and Haitian Red Cross volunteers set up a water distribution point.    

  ©ICRC/M. Kokic/ht-e-00562    
  Cité Soleil, Port-au-Prince. The ICRC water distribution point where someone recently added fresh graffiti to thank the organization. Although Cité-Soleil is one of Haiti's most violent slums, the activities of the Red Cross in the community allow its staff to work in relative safety.    

Belekou, the most destitute quarter in Cité Soleil, sits between Route 9 and the seashore, crisscrossed by two canals of grey water overflowing with refuse. Thousands of families live in its metal shacks and hundreds live in its streets. For most, the only belongings seem to be a mat, a small stove and a few cooking utensils. Debris litter narrow alleyways where scores of families have been spending the night since the January 12th earthquake.

The acrid smell of burning trash is everywhere. About 100 women and children, many in rags, are lining up in front of a 4,000-litre water reservoir bearing the Red Cross emblem. As they get closer to the water, they fight to fill their buckets.

Cité Soleil is a proud neighbourhood with a long history of survival and resistance and it is a tough environment for outsiders to work in. Providing water to Belekou residents, uncertain about the future and tense, is challenging. The ICRC is the only organization present here everyday. " If you don't know who is who and if the people don't know you, there is no way you can work here, " says Ugo Mora, the ICRC water engineer who oversees the organization’s projects in Cité Soleil. He has worked in Belekou and neighbouring shantytowns on-and-off since 2006.

 The race to deliver water in Cité Soleil neighbourhoods  

Earlier in the day, we meet Haitian engineers at CAMEP, the local water authority, to organize repairs on the water-supply network. Supplies are scarce and the work will take longer than anticipated. We ask whether a forklift needed to move a one-tonne generator is finally av ailable. " We don't have any, " says engineer Thomas, " you'll have to use whatever we can get. "

The next stop is at Glace Penguin, a filling station near the airport where water trucks line up throughout the day. Ugo locates another truck that can deliver water to Cité Soleil later in the afternoon. That means water for an additional 3,600 people.

We then drive to a hangar where the generator has been stored. Displaced families live here too and a local doctor who spontaneously started a first-aid post is tending to the wounded. We find a forklift truck thanks to Rudy Wuthrich, a Swiss engineer who works for a local company and has lived in Haiti for 35 years. " There is enough water underground for the entire city, " he says. " Distributing it is the challenge. " The truck arrives an hour later.

We are soon on our way to Duvivier 2, a pumping station located in a banana plantation, four kilometres north of Cité Soleil. The generator we bring will allow for an additional 150 cubic metres of water to flow into Cité Soleil every hour, ensuring a round-the-clock supply during the emergency phase. The generator is lowered onto a platform Ugo's team built yesterday. Children from a nearby village come and watch. " So nice to see this thing finally here, " says Ugo. It took three days to get the generator in place.

We meet Reginald, an ICRC field officer, at the ICRC distribution point near Soleil 19. Reginald was born in the neighbourhood and lives here. He is helping to transfer water from the truck into a yellow rubber reservoir, known as a bladder. He speaks to young men hovering nearby so that things do not get out of hand. Françoise Forges, a Haitian Red Cross volunteer, operates the faucets, making sure each woman standing in line gets her share of water. She knows them and it helps her work. Children are playing and washing in the water that drips into the gutter, laughing. The walls near the distribution point, many of them half-standing, are covered with political slogans. Someone added fresh graffiti recently; the white paint is still clean.'Merci au CICR'it says.

" There is a parallel market for water in the neighbourhood and the richer residents pool their resources to buy their water, " says Ugo. " But today, the poor cannot afford anything and they depend on the city network, which is now dysfunctional. That's why during the emergency phase we rent these trucks. " The trucks that bring water to the four Cité Soleil distribution points throughout the day are painted in bright colours, Haitian-style.'Eau Délice','Eau Miracle','La Foileau', – Water-faith.

 Women jostle each other for water in Belekou  

Our last stop of the day is in Belekou. Gang sentinels guard the entrance of their neighbourhood. Not many outsiders venture in anyway. The sentinels are muscular, intense-looking young men who all seem to wear mirror sunglasses. They know the ICRC and welcome us with a nod.

As we get out of our car, Junior, another young man in sunglasses, greets ICRC engineer Ugo, who has known him for years. " I made sure people did not steal your bladder last night, " Junior says. Despite this, someone removed some of the bolts that seal the contraption and water is leaking. As Ugo climbs on top of the reservoir to screw new bolts on, naked children play under the platform and fill small plastic bottles. Women scream and push each other as they get closer to the bladder. It is a tense but happy moment.

Military helicopters are flying in the sky, over this forgotten place and over its not-quite-forgotten people.