By Chris Kenning, Special to The Record
THOMAZEAU, Haiti – The aging diesel pickup crawled, scraped and groaned up a 45-degree tumble of rocks as a Water with Blessings team inched ever higher on a mountain along sheer cliffs — toward a deadly cholera outbreak in a village without safe water or medical care.
After battling for more than an hour up a road trod mostly by donkeys, the driver refused to go any further — and it would be several more days before the Haitian team finally was able to reach Cornillon, a neglected village where 20 had died and about 100 were sickened, many of them children. Once there, they trained village mothers to use 195 water filter kits, which will keep residents safe from the contaminated water that spreads cholera.
“These women only want safe water for their children, so they don’t have to worry about cholera threatening the lives of their families,” said Shelby Calisse, a Haitian team leader.
Water With Blessings, a small non-profit in Middletown, sends Sawyer PointONE filters to developing countries to stamp out waterborne illnesses.
It is facing daunting challenges as it launches an ambitious new phase of its village-by-village project to help eradicate cholera in Haiti.
Those challenges were amplified further last week, when violent protests over sudden fuel price increases led Haitians to block some roads with burning tires and rocks. Businesses were looted and dozens of buildings burned in unrest that left several protesters killed, according to reports. The price increases were quickly scrapped, but the unrest led to canceled flights and stranded some Haitians, tourists and aid workers at jobs and hotels for days.
Water With Blessings is poised to restart its work after a brief pause because the unrest made it hard to reach some areas, including parts of the Anse-a-Veau region in Western Haiti, the main target of its second eradication campaign, said Gerry Delaquis, a Louisville-based member of the Water With Blessings team.
In its first phase, the group brought clean water to 14 villages around Verrettes which helped stem cases of cholera there.
“It’s not easy work, but our brave team is doing all they can to get life-saving help to some of the most vulnerable people in Haiti,” said Ursuline Sister of Mount St. Joseph Larraine Lauter, who leads Water With Blessings.
While new cases of cholera in Haiti have declined significantly, Reuters last year reported that 800,000 Haitians had fallen ill and an estimated 9,300 had died since U.N. peacekeepers accidentally introduced the disease in 2010 when they dumped infected sewage into a river outside of Port-au-Prince.
Thousands are still sickened, especially during the rainy season, when runoff can contaminate wells, rivers and other sources. Haiti, one of the hemisphere’s poorest countries, is particularly vulnerable since nearly 40 percent of residents do not have daily access to clean water and many lack regular use of a toilet.
In Thomazeau, a local hospital administrator whose cholera ward included beds with holes in the middle to deal with the diarrhea that can dehydrate and quickly kill sufferers, said he is seeing fewer than a dozen each week now, down from 300 at its peak. But bigger outbreaks come and go, he said, and some government cholera field clinics have been closed, leaving remote areas vulnerable to illness that leaves sufferers without an easy way to reach a hospital.
“Sick people are walking five miles to get here,” he said.
It’s a similar plight in parts of Anse-a-Veau, where on one day last month the Water With Blessings’ Haitian team of trainers packed buckets and filters and boarded a Toyota Land Cruiser that bumped its way into the mountains. They eventually stopped and set out on foot, trekking several miles through sugarcane and palms, crossing a river and hiking up a mountainside to reach Moinsard, a collection of villages comprising about 3,000 people.
Residents’ homes, made of concrete block, woven limbs and plaster with tin roofing, were clustered under mango trees on a bluff that looked out on sweeping vistas of green mountains, palms and vegetation. Most are small-scale farmers, growing corn, beans and plantains and raising chickens and pigs. There’s no running water or sewage pipes, flush toilets or electricity. Smoke from an outdoor cooking fire filled the air, not far from an outhouse perched on a bluff.
Here, residents have long collected drinking water in the shallow river nearby, where they also bath, wash pots and water livestock. Resident Dominique Viegili did, too, before cholera washed down the river in recent years.
She and many others fell sick with shocking speed. Viegili said she suffered vomiting and constant diarrhea until her muscles felt weak. She was so dehydrated that her life hung in the balance. The nearest hospital meant clinging to the back of a motorcycle over rutted trails and mountains.
“I felt like I drank death,” she said.
She survived, reaching a doctor in time for rehydration treatment. But many others in the area did not. Some women lost their subsistence farmer husbands, depriving them of much of the family’s income and food, said Viala Andrevil, a Moinsard-area community leader whose husband was sickened and has since died.
“That river killed people,” Andrevil said.
But on this day, women in dresses and sandals, their feet dusty from walking, came from nearby hamlets and sat on rough-cut boards in small groups, listening intently to training about the filter’s use and importance, as men and children looked on. Using a lottery system, the women got banana-sized filters and buckets fitted as tiny water tanks, to filter bacteria. Within a few hours, they were headed home with an easy-to-use filter and life-saving peace of mind.
Jeune Aliancia, who got a filter in a nearby village, carried her bucket and filter to her home a half mile away, an ancient plaster and wood structure where chickens pecked in the yard, and immediately poured water into the bucket and through the filter.
“I was afraid and I still am, but praise God,” she said.
For more information about Water With Blessings, go to www.waterwithblessings.org or text VxV to 71777.