A Hard Choice: Water or Work

A Hard Choice: Water or Work

Today’s (12/2/10) edition of The New York Times contained a poignant and powerful op-ed piece by columnist Nicholas D. Kristof. Here is how it begins:

An emergency cholera hospital is the grimmest kind of medical center, and it’s a symbol of the succession of horrors that have battered Haiti over the last year.

Here in Haiti’s central plateau, I visited a cholera treatment center run by an excellent aid group, Partners in Health, in collaboration with the Ministry of Health. Nobody goes in or out without being thoroughly disinfected; to try to control the epidemic, bodies are buried rather than released to families.

In one tent, 40 seriously ill patients were lying next to each other on cholera beds — boards with holes in the middle and waste buckets underneath to catch the constant diarrhea. Staff members put a sheet over Tiphay Merilus, 66, just as I arrived. Patients a few feet away in other beds averted their eyes as a sanitation crew carried out Mr. Merilus’s corpse and disinfected his cot.

Already, more than 1,700 people have died of cholera in less than a month, and the Pan American Health Organization estimates that 400,000 Haitians may get cholera over the next year.

The earthquake in January caused some 250,000 deaths. The death toll was a result not only of seismic activity but also of poverty: shoddy construction and slow rescue efforts meant many more deaths than if the same quake had occurred in, say, California. Then came cholera, which is a disease of poverty — abysmal sanitation and lack of potable water can create an epidemic.

One cholera patient, Dieulimere Renatu, 21, told me that she gets drinking water from a river. If she were to seek water from a safer source, she would have to spend three or four hours a day fetching water for her family — and then would have less time to work and earn money. Those are the trade-offs that Haitians face.

I have repeatedly tried to tell family and friends just how hard daily life is for Haitians. In the slum where I live when in Haiti, there is access to clean, treated water. But first, you need the money to buy it, and second it takes a considerable effort to haul the water from the vendor to the house. It does not take hours, but I’m sure that it some really large slums and in rural areas getting clean water would consume a good chunk of the day.

It all seems so hopeless. Yet there is hope…the hope of ordinary people doing extraordinary things in places like Haiti, people working in obscurity for people they do not even know. Mr. Kristof wrote about one young woman who has provided 300 dry composting toilets that turn human waste into fertilizer, which in turn provides desperately needed topsoil and fertilizer to boost agricultural production. The landscape of Port-au-Prince is dotted with porta-potties in a near futile attempt to provide sanitation for the million homeless people living in the camps. I can not imagine using one of these toilets. Many homeless Haitians, men and woman, just urinate in the streets. Waste from those toilets is collected by specialized trucks and then dumped in an untreated city dump. People are scavenging in those dumps for scraps of metal they can sell. The young woman Mr. Kristof met is doing something to combat the harmful effects of untreated human waste which is contributing to the spread of cholera.

In the face of the hopelessness I feel in Haiti, I take comfort and courage from people like Dorothy Day who simply do what they can and leave the rest to God. In her journal, Dorothy Day wrote:

“Certainly when [I] lie in jail thinking of these things, thinking of war and peace, and the problems of human freedom…and the apathy of great masses of people who believe that nothing can be done, I am all the more confirmed in my faith in the little way of St. Therese. We do the minute things that come to hand, we pray our prayers, and beg also for an increase of faith – and God will do the rest.”


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