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Haitians Search for Clean Water

People suffering cholera symptoms rest on stretchers as they crowd the entrance of a public hospital in Limbe village near Cap Haitian, Haiti, 22 Nov 2010
People suffering cholera symptoms rest on stretchers as they crowd the entrance of a public hospital in Limbe village near Cap Haitian, Haiti, 22 Nov 2010

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As aid workers in Haiti struggle to contain the cholera outbreak, one of the biggest obstacles is access to safe water. In rural areas, many people rely on rivers and streams from which to wash, bath and drink. The Artibonite River, identified as a possible source of the outbreak, winds through vast areas of the country north of Port au Prince. Now feared unsafe, many residents of the area have nowhere to go for fresh water.

Here, along a tributary of the Artibonite River is where some of the first cholera cases in Haiti were reported. More than 50 residents of the impoverished neighborhood of Villa, North of Saint Marc, have died so far. Many - like Evans Monee - are looking for answers.

"We don't know where it came from," said Monee. "But we know this was one of the first places where cholera was found, and a lot of people died because we have no clean water. Look at the kids over here. Even if we wanted to clean them up, what water could we clean them up with?"

The Artibonite plane, a few hours North of the capital, Port au Prince, consists of rich agricultural lands fed by the river. Allegations that cholera was brought to Haiti by Nepalese U.N. Peacekeepers camped up stream, led to violent protests last week, though the source of the outbreak has not been determined.

None of that concerns the residents of Villa. They worry about where they will get safe water. Monee told us there are three sources for water in the area: river and well water, which are considered unsafe. And water from this chlorine treatment tank, donated by an NGO. (Non-government organization).

"A white man came and gave us this machine," said Monee. "But the problem is, the water is so bitter, no one likes to drink it.  When I drink it, it gives me a stomach ache."

Some in the neighborhood drink river water treated with purification tablets, but there have been questions about their effectiveness. Pierre Leroi said his mother died after drinking river water treated with tablets. "We took my mother to the hospital, but they did not know what she had and released her. She died a day later."

Leroi is the eldest of eight children. His father is no longer with the family. Now, he must provide for his younger brothers and sisters.

"There are no jobs here and we have no money," said Leroi. "We don't have much food, and sometimes we go without."

The medical organization Doctors Without Borders has set up a cholera clinic at the hospital in Saint Marc to assist local doctors, one of 21 facilities around the country. They have brought their cholera treatment expertise to Haiti. Haitian physician Dr. August Berthin told us cholera fatalities at the hospital are now rare.

"This has been a great experience with Doctors Without Borders," said Berthin. "And every time we save a life, it makes me happy."

For the people of Villa, that is little consolation. They have already lost many family members, friends and neighbors. They now fear the river, and worry about the rainy season next year when it rises over its banks and into their homes.

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