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Tom Mahin, a drinking water specialist, flew to Haiti recently to help Oxfam stem the spread of a cholera outbreak that has now reached every province of the country. Here, he recounts some of the challenges of that work.
I arrived a few days ago in the Artibonite Valley in Haiti to work with Oxfam on its response to the cholera outbreak. My focus is on drinking water. The valley is much different than Port-au-Prince where I worked for Oxfam for five weeks after the January 2010 earthquake. Here, it is greener and much less congested, but the valley is also where the cholera outbreak has been the worst. Lack of adequate safe drinking water in villages is a major problem for people, now even more so because of the cholera outbreak.
One of my first tasks was to accompany an Oxfam public health engineer to sites selected for some new wells to provide safe drinking water—key to preventing the spread of cholera– and to see the drilling of wells underway. Oxfam has contracted with two local drilling companies to do the work. The companies don’t rely on expensive drilling rigs: They mostly use hand augers, though sometimes workers dig the wells by hand because rocks make the use of augers impossible.
Because we need to make the wells available quickly, Oxfam has been advising the companies on how to increase their drilling speed. In the long-term, these new techniques–which include methods for preventing fine sand from entering the wells and delaying their use– will be less work for the drillers and will result in future wells being available sooner.
Drilling wells is just one of our initiatives. We’re also working to improve other water delivery systems, including in places like Labadie, an area located in a mountainous region that surrounds the valley. Parts of it are accessible only by foot or horse.
Labadie has a large gravity flow system that provides drinking water from a protected mountain spring to 3,500 people. But it wasn’t functioning, so Oxfam supplied pipes, cement, and other materials, along with technical guidance, so that local residents could make many of the repairs themselves. We’ll pay for the masonry work. Now, water is flowing to 60 percent of the communal taps. The plan is to get water to the other 40 percent and to supply parts and cement for other repairs to ensure the long-term functioning of the system.
On the way back from Labadie, a long trek in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, I thought a lot about the people with serious cases of cholera who must have come down from these mountains in the recent weeks and months. Young children and the elderly with severe diarrhea and vomiting would have been taken by their families down roads like the one we were on that day, some even without the help of a vehicle. It was unsettling to see how the poor infrastructure in areas like this had increased the spread of cholera and made it difficult for those infected to get to help they needed.