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Law in the Time of Cholera: Violations of the Right to Water in Haiti

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Port-au-Prince, Haiti -- On a Sunday afternoon in Camp Kasim, water is nowhere to be found. Once the Oxfam-supplied tanks run dry for the weekend, they will not be refilled until Monday. If cholera were to strike on a Sunday, life-saving rehydration may be but a theoretical possibility.

The cholera epidemic, which has now claimed the lives of over 3,000 people, is only the most recent and urgent symptom of a larger and ongoing violation of the right to water in Haiti. Cholera represents a special threat to the one million internally displaced people (IDPs) living in camps that often lack access to water and toilets.

For cholera, a disease that is waterborne and kills by dehydration, access to clean water is imperative to both prevention and treatment. Despite this, the cholera response has not led to significant improvements in access to clean water.

Attempts to contain the epidemic have centered largely on public education campaigns. Refrains like lave men nou ak savon ak dlo pwòp, byen kwit tout manje (wash your hands with soap and clean water, cook all food thoroughly) are blasted on megaphones, sent through mass text messages, and illustrated on colorful posters. But in the absence of access to clean water, the cholera prevention messages are a ridicule of the reality of the living conditions in most of Haiti's IDP camps.

At a recent training on prevention offered by the International Organisation on Migration (IOM), participants quickly grew weary. "What soap?" asked a man from Carrefour who had traveled over an hour to join the training. "How can we afford to buy Chlorox to treat our water when we don't have money to buy food for our children?" challenged another participant, highlighting the reality for many of Haiti's IDPs.

Under international human rights law, the Haitian Government has an obligation to ensure the availability, quality, and accessibility of water for all. Cholera has morbidly exposed preexisting failures in each of these areas.

The international community of donor countries and humanitarian agencies share the responsibility. Following the January 12 earthquake, they assumed a duty when they requested and received billions of dollars to meet the needs of the displaced. Rather than supporting the capacity of the government to build sanitation facilities and water systems, the money went directly to NGOs who adopted the responsibility for water provision in the camps.

Human rights law mandates that every person must have a supply of water that is sufficient and continuous for personal and domestic uses. Yet when it comes to water availability, Camp Kasim is still among the "lucky." Over 40 percent of IDP camps surveyed in October did not have any water supply at all.

Where agencies do supply water, it is generally untreated even though quality is a grave problem -- Haiti's water has previously been rated the worst in the world. To camp residents, waterborne diseases are nothing new -- they regularly report suffering from skin rashes and diarrhea from the consumption of contaminated water. Drinking dirty water is not the result of a lack of education but a lack of alternatives; 39 percent of respondents in a study conducted by the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) in July reported that they drank from tanks and cisterns even though they feared it was contaminated because they have no other options.

To access potable water in Kasim, the residents have to dart through busy traffic to purchase it at a store across the major street that runs outside the camp. This situation is replicated widely -- 61 percent of the families surveyed by IJDH in December had to purchase potable water every day. With 80% of the population living on less than $2 per day, finding money to buy water is a daily struggle. As a result of this, IJDH found that 21 percent of the families surveyed never had access to potable water.

While the primary responsibility to respect, protect and fulfill the Haitian people's right to water rests primarily with the Haitian government, the international community is culpable of violating of the right to water through its interventions and assistance.

In 1998, the Government of Haiti had the opportunity and commitment to make drastic improvements to its water supply system when the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) approved a $54 million loan aimed to improve potable water and sanitation services. The IDB estimated that the loan would decrease water costs for the poor by up to 90 percent.

On the eve of its dispersal, however, the United States blocked the loan. Internal communications obtained under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) revealed that the interference was motivated by foreign policy designed to limit support for Haiti's democratically elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide because of his left-wing policies that were seen as a barrier to U.S. interests in the region. Such political considerations are in direct violation of the IDB's Articles of Agreement, but with significant voting power, the United States succeeded in stopping the loan dispersal.

Following the earthquake on January 12, 2010, the international community committed to stand with Haiti as it rebuilds. A year after the earthquake, less than half of aid pledged for reconstruction in 2010 has been delivered, and the country has been unable to move beyond the emergency phase. The humanitarian community has taken on a quasi-governmental role in Haiti's reconstruction, but has failed to meet even the most basic needs in the camps. Activists have warned for months that these conditions made Haiti ripe for a public health disaster. Rather than seeking to fill these gaps, the U.N. responded to the concerns by citing the lack of an outbreak as evidence that the relief effort was succeeding.

The source of the cholera outbreak is now being traced back to a U.N. peacekeeping base in Mirebalais, where human waste from MINUSTAH toilets was negligently dumped directly into the Artibonite River, one of Haiti's most vital water sources. Despite mounting evidence, the U.N. thwarted accountability and refused an independent investigation.

Fed up from decades of foreign intervention and a looming epidemic, thousands of Haitians have taken to the streets over recent months to protest MINUSTAH's presence and the spread of cholera. Transparency and accountability could prevent the situation from escalating, but it is only recently, after most traces of evidence have been disposed, that the U.N. has agreed to an investigation.

Even under the best scenarios, Haiti will have an IDP population living in tents for years to come, and as the cholera outbreak demonstrates, spotty emergency provision of water is not sustainable or sufficient. The international community has a duty to support and enable the Haitian government to implement basic infrastructure to improve availability, quality and accessibility of water for Haiti's most vulnerable. While critics are quick to point to corruption and lack of accountability within the Haitian government, the same, if not more, needs to be demanded from the international community who currently sits on the resources to rebuild.