(IPS) PORT-AU-PRINCE -- Uruguayan officers with the United Nations peacekeeping force in Haiti could not believe that the water pumped from 70 metres underground could be contaminated with colibacteria.
But indeed it was -- and once again they had to rely on their portable water filtration system.
The contamination of the underground water was especially surprising because the military base where the well was dug was not in a populous city, but in Port Salut, a small town on Haiti's southwest coast, surrounded by an abundance of farm production -- at least by Haitian standards.
This small bit of natural paradise, where even the country's crisis of violence seems to be held back by the surrounding hills, does look a little cleaner after the joint effort in trash collection and planting of trees by the UN's "blue helmets" and the local population.
The endeavor went a long way towards smoothing over tensions and paving the way for peace, as one of the military officers described it to Tierramerica.
But the water purifiers only provide enough to drink for the approximately 800 soldiers who travelled 5,000 km from Uruguay to join the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), an authority that cannot serve as a substitute for the absent municipal government.
Meanwhile, mountains of garbage continue to grow, spilling into the streets and the turquoise waters of the Caribbean.
The lack of a functioning state is sadly evident as soon as the newly arrived visitor leaves the Port-au-Prince airport and, surrounded by sewage water and nauseating odors, travels through that chaotic city. In contrast to Rio de Janeiro or Caracas, where the slums rise up the hillsides, here one finds cleaner streets and more walled-in mansions the higher up the mountains one goes.
In the last 20 years in this nation of 8.5 million people, trade "liberalization" -- a lowering of tariffs mandated by international lending agencies -- contributed to the collapse of Haitian agriculture and triggered an exodus from rural areas, which doubled the capital's population and filled this and other cities with shantytowns.
The unregulated construction of shacks filled drainage areas, riverbeds and other sites affecting water resources, in addition to pushing Port-au-Prince practically into the bay, especially in the Bel-Air, Cite Soleil and Carrefour neighborhoods, which are the most violent areas today, along with the northern city of Gonaives.
No Haitian city has a sewage system in good condition, and there are only a few isolated water treatment plants. The insufficiencies have led to contamination of nearly all water supplies in the capital, according to international institutions. Local statistics are conspicuous in their absence.
Figures are lacking, and garbage abounds. Every step of the way in Port-au-Prince, pedestrians have to walk in the dangerous streets to get around the enormous piles of rubbish on the sidewalks.
"Weeks can go by before a city truck comes," commented a long-accustomed official from the Uruguayan military's logistical center, set amongst stately old houses and embassies in the capital.
What's more, old cars are increasingly being brought in from the United States duty-free in addition to the old vehicles already on the capital's roads, adding their exhaust to air pollution in this city where traffic control is non-existent and there are only a few traffic lights -- and those aren't functioning.
"Water from the faucet can only be used for bathing," was the first warning received by a group of journalists from Uruguay, including Tierramerica, upon arrival in Haiti, invited by the peacekeepers. "Nor should one eat any food sold in the streets."
Only 50 percent of the population has access to even this "unrecommended" water, through a much-lacking network of household connections or through public faucets.
In the cities it is not unusual to see adults and children bathing and washing clothes at the public faucets, and in rural areas people make similar use of the small streams that trickle down the mountains outside rainy season, which is usually April through June, but this year is behind schedule. When it does rain, everything floods.
In this context, and with 80 percent of Haitians living in poverty, it comes as no surprise that infant mortality reaches 69 per 1,000 live births, as Anne Poulsen, a Danish woman working with the World Food Program, told the Uruguayan press contingent.
The main causes of death are diarrhoea-related diseases, acute respiratory infections, and malnutrition, which affect 47 percent of the child population. Now life expectancy at birth is barely more than 50 years.
Malnutrition has some environmental causes. "There was depredation of nature to the point that only two percent of the original forest remains," said Poulsen. Every year erosion from rainfall drags an estimated 20,000 tons of soil from cultivable areas toward the sea.
"Therefore it is very difficult here to produce the food necessary for the population -- it only supplies half -- because there is no infrastructure for stable production," the expert explained.
Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas, faces numerous serious challenges, not the least of which is its vulnerability to tropical storms. For this year, 14 are predicted, and any one could turn into a hurricane like Jeanne, which in September 2004 killed 2,000 Haitians.
June 24, 2005 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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