Sanitation urgent as rainy season nears

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — When Guerrier Lejean feels nature's call, he creeps to the edge of his urban encampment and relieves himself in the bushes.

He has been doing so since the Jan. 12 earthquake left him homeless, and so have most of his approximately 2,500 neighbors who huddle in shelters made of sticks and bed sheets.

The crowded camp, wedged between an exhaust-choked boulevard and the Port-au-Prince airport, has no bathrooms.

A dire shortage of toilets in the more than 300 encampments that have sprouted willy-nilly across Port-au-Prince has added to the list of daily rigors faced by displaced residents. But it is more than a matter of inconvenience.

With rainy season expected to begin next month, sanitation and hygiene loom as urgent health concerns for about 1 million people living in fields and vacant lots in quake-struck areas in and around the capital.

Former President Bill Clinton, the United Nations' special envoy to Haiti, called sanitation the most pressing need facing quake victims and warned of the dangers, "particularly for little kids."

"They have no place to go to the bathroom and, as a result ... they may be contaminating every piece of standing water," Clinton said in an interview with Fox News' Major Garrett. And that, he said, could lead to diarrhea, dysentery, cholera and tetanus, "and we could have a huge second wave of casualties."

Aid workers say coming rains will increase the risk of disease outbreaks. Authorities are racing to get latrines built and portable toilets and hand-washing stations installed before heavy rains begin.

"Once the rain comes, the feces will flow everywhere," said Therese Dooley, senior adviser for sanitation and hygiene at UNICEF. "A gram of feces contains billions of bacteria and pathogens. What you have to worry about is them getting into the food chain."

Haitian officials hope to have in place at least 18,000 latrines, one for about every 50 displaced people, within a few weeks. Authorities want to eventually cut that ratio to one latrine for every 20 people.

Aid groups are digging pits, installing portable toilets and erecting latrines with above-ground storage tanks. Camps are gradually being outfitted with hand-washing stations: 2-liter plastic sacks or 200-liter drums with nozzles and soap.

Relief officials point out that proper hygiene can be even better at preventing disease than latrines. UNICEF has handed out hygiene kits with buckets, soap, toothbrushes and sanitary napkins to 86,000 families.