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Monday, December 29, 2003 - Page updated at 12:32 A.M.

Close-up
An eroding nation: Rainfall is ample, but clean water rare in Haiti

By Tim Collie
South Florida Sun-Sentinel

MIKE STOCKER / SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL
A polluted canal snakes through God's Village, a slum of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, toward the ocean. When the flood waters rush down the eroded mountainsides, the slum becomes engulfed in water and mud. Haiti has lost much of its tree cover and farmland since 1940, but its population has soared, contributing to a massive ecological and humanitarian crisis.
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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Samantha Joseph's quest for water begins just after sunrise when the roosters crow in Jalousie, a sprawling slum of concrete-block hovels that tumble down a steep mountainside above Haiti's capital city.

Joining a steady stream of girls lugging empty antifreeze jugs, medical-waste containers, old paint cans and bright-colored buckets, the demure 13-year-old makes her way over a rocky slope each morning, past the homes of this country's elite.

After walking three miles through several other slums and busy streets, the trek ends at Tete de L'Eau — the fountainhead — a small, sky-blue concrete building.

Samantha and other girls crowd into the building, pushing money through bars to a clerk who then steers them to another caged area where they fill their containers with water that flows from the building.

It's 9 a.m. Like most here, she has never been to school; her family cannot afford the cost or the loss of Samantha's labor.

"It's women's work; that's just the way things are here," explained Marie Therese Pierre, 62, the girl's grandmother. "There used to be plenty of water here. It was easy to find, and the streams were clean. Now the streams are dirty and the girls, they walk a lot."

Less than one-third of Haiti's population has access to clean drinking water and sanitation. Demand from the growing population has overtaken dwindling supplies. Girls like Samantha are walking ever-longer distances in search of water.

Haiti is at the forefront of a global water crisis. What happens here during the next decade, experts say, could take place in larger, similarly water-poor countries.

Recent studies by the United Nations and other groups have ranked Haiti among the worst in the world for water supply and quality. Investment in water and sewer systems — largely constructed by the United States in the 1930s — has not kept up with population growth. Most of the countryside, where about half the population lives, has never had plumbing or sewers.

In Haiti, much of the country remains hundreds of years behind developed nations. The average Haitian's life span has fallen to 49 years — six years less than a decade ago — in part because of disease rates tied to dirty water.

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Haiti's abundant rainfall could provide enough water for its current population, if it were captured and well-managed in clear canals, water-treatment plants and distribution facilities. On average, the country receives about 55 inches of rainfall every year.

"The country has more than enough water; it's a question of storing and managing it well," said Jean Andre Victor, one of Haiti's leading environmental researchers. "But if we started now, it's going to take years, perhaps decades, to correct this crisis."

Victor envisions a coming environmental struggle with the Dominican Republic, which has much better access to water and sanitation. As Haiti's rivers and underground streams continue to dry up, more pressure will be put on the Artibonite River, the main source of water for both countries.

But such consequences are inconceivable to the Joseph family, whose water carriers cannot imagine conditions becoming worse than they already are.

"Something has to improve because we can't walk much farther for water or we'll be gone all day," said Samantha Joseph's cousin, Darlene. "It's not up to us, but it's up to God to bring more water to this island.

"God or the government."

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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