Last week’s cholera outbreak in Haiti has people thinking about water sanitation again. Nearly 300 people have died already and another 4, 000 people are sick—and according to experts, the worst is yet to come. Haiti hasn’t seen cholera since the early 20th century, and it’s leaving many to speculate why it’s happening now.
Some think it may have originated from a Nepalese peacekeeping base in Mirebalais; others believe it’s somehow linked to the January earthquake. While the crowding of people into poorly sanitized “safe” zones may contribute to its proliferation, it’s unlikely that the origins of the cholera outbreak had much to do with the earthquake at all. The absence of a good water supply management infrastructure has been a problem in Haiti since way before the quake—there was never a good sewer or wastewater system in the country to begin with. David Sack, a public health expert from Johns Hopkins, told NPR on Tuesday that a rise in river temperatures and salinity near the epicenter may have triggered the otubreak. Colder temperatures keep the bacteria dormant, but at a certain point they can become active again. In countries with seasonal cycles of warmer and colder water temperatures, like Bangladesh and Peru, we’ve seen cholera hit more recently and frequently.
The most obvious solution to preventing the spread of cholera is to treat water before drinking it or cooking with it. Several for-profit and non-profit ventures are actively distributing water filtration systems, chlorine tablets, and bottled water. Unfortunately, this still fails to reach the majority of the affected population. And even if they do have clean water for a short period of time, it’s not sustainable.
This morning, I spoke to Bobbi Dunphy and Jay Slough from LifeGivingForce, a for-profit-meets-foundation organization that sells suitcase-sized water treatment plants called Rapid Response Units to local non-profits, World Vision, and the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti. Using twin-walled ultra-filtration membranes, these filters can sanitize up to 10,000+ liters of water a day. The units cost between $8,500 and $16,000 each—not pocket change—but some interesting improvements have been taking place in some communities that have employed this relatively fast, high-volume method of water filtration.
When an elementary school in the municipality of Marigot in southeastern Haiti lost a third of its students to diarrhea earlier this year, local non-profit Providence Haiti Outreach bought a LGF Rapid Response Unit for the village pastor, who has a well by his home two miles away. Every day, the pastor can purify up to 10,000 liters of water to take to the school in his truck; the kids use that water on campus and take it home for their families to cook with. The kids are all healthy and back in school now, but that’s just part of the story. Over the past several months, the community has produced so much clean water that it is now able to sell parts of its supply to neighboring towns. Marigot now has a commercially viable, sustainable water-based business, and its people are learning how to bottle water, sell it, and manage profits.
Science and technology are obviously a huge part of the equation when problem-solving for post-disaster zone reconstruction. But it’s also important to think about how to engage local communities in the rebuilding process; the latter has a lasting, empowering effect on the target population.
Photos via Flickr/Zoriah, Flickr/Oxfam International
Guest Blogger Profile: LISA KATAYAMA writes articles about culture, technology, and human rights for Wired, Popular Science, Fast Company, and the New York Times Magazine. She also produces radio segments for PRI’s Studio360 and is a Senior Fellow at Creative Commons. You can find her on Twitter as @tokyomango.