Haiti and Flint: Worlds apart, but looking for clean water

A man get water on the shore of Jacmel, Haiti.
A man get water on the shore of Jacmel, Haiti. Miami Herald

My father just stared at the screen the whole time — shock had settled in. As the death toll rose, he stayed fixated on that screen.

When I was growing up, he would tell me stories of the trouble he and his brothers found themselves in as kids in Port-au-Prince. His grandmother there practiced a kind of craft, like voodoo, he’d say, and I remember rolling on the floor from the ways he described being haunted by her large presence. My father and his brothers left Haiti for America in their early teens and he still recalls being harassed because of his accent. Seven years ago this week, Haiti’s earthquake shook the nation and sent tremors, through media coverage, into my father as we watched it unfold.

We were living in South Florida in 2010 when Haiti was turned upside down on Jan. 12 by that magnitude 7.0 earthquake.We believed that the small island would be torn from within and float about helplessly across the Caribbean Sea. But on that day it had not, and relief efforts immediately flooded in from nations neighboring and abroad. From the Red Cross text messaging system, to Doctors Without Borders and UNICEF, to relief concerts and fundraisers — the world responded to the call to action through cash, check, money order, email, text and in person through aid on the ground. What resulted was nearly $13 billion relief funds for the country that were to last well into 2020.

But the relief was quickly overshadowed by the true nature of predatory, international aid groups who seemingly assumed role over already governing entities, and who squandered hundreds of millions of dollars in efforts to rebuild Haiti, halting any progress that was to be made for a time that has yet to come.

The ruins of areas such as Canaan and Port-au-Prince were again hit hard by another natural disaster in Hurricane Matthew, and with the minimal strides made during the earthquake relief period before, tens of thousands of Haitian residents remained without stable homes, sanitation, and, especially, clean water.

Just this week, the United Nations announced the next phase of a water-supply project that would combat the increasing number of cholera cases plaguing Haiti since being ravaged by multiple disasters. It is set to bring clean water to a community in Hinche, at the center of the island. The U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) provided nearly $95,000 to the project and says it will help 18,000 people in the area. Previously, those affected were forced to find water from unsafe sources like ponds and nearby rivers, but now a small number of the vast population impacted by these disasters will have access to safer drinking outlets. Despite the next phase of this project helping many residents of the still recovering country, Haitians in Canaan find their rooftops missing, and their water supply, scarce. Thursday marked the seventh year since the earthquake, and though many are quick to use the word “anniversary,” it would be best to view this moment more reflexively.

Much like the residents in Haiti seeking clean water after their disasters, many women and men in our own back yard of Flint, Michigan are still doing the same after lead contamination in their water supply reached dangerous levels in early 2014, as this too resulted from man-made issues of irresponsibility and inept oversight. In both instances, these two locations saw their respective communities, already rife with economic disparity, struck with the challenges of inadequate access to drinkable water after their respective officials inappropriately assessed the situation.

Rapacious aid groups triggered a ripple effect across Haiti when they grossly mishandled relief funds, similar to the way state and local officials failed to recognize the issues that would arise from canceling Flint’s contract with Detroit’s Water and Sewage Department for the alternative with Karegnondi Water Authority, who sourced water from Lake Huron. With the advent of continuously evolving technology, the need for practical and sustainable access to clean drinking water should come first on a laundry list of “to-do’s” for places like Canaan, Port-au-Prince, Flint and other communities trapped in the margins.

Public demand should be swift in calling forward persons responsible for delaying reconstruction of economically disadvantaged cities, and efforts should be regulated by personnel capable of distributing aid, and vetted beforehand as to acknowledge the presence of any predatory behaviors.

After seven years of watching an island attempt over and again to rebuild itself from the inside out, after watching a city within our own nation plead through social media for aid, accountability remains as absent in these areas as clean water to drink.

Jamal Michel teaches English Literature at Northern High School in Durham, North Carolina. He received a B.A. in English Literature at Florida International University.