Report indicts U.S. government and Inter-American Development Bank for violations of the rights to clean water and health in Haiti
By Tom Spoth
In 1998, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) awarded $54 million in loans to the Haitian government to improve the country’s patchwork, crumbling public-water system. The money was intended to bring clean water to people who for many years had been denied this basic human right, with devastating consequences for public health. Ten years later, however, this desperately needed money has not produced a single improvement to Haiti’s water supply in the city designated to be one of the first recipients.
A water source in need of an intervention in Haiti.
A new report from Partners In Health and three other groups reveals the United States government’s clandestine efforts to ensure that political considerations (namely the desire to destabilize Haiti’s elected government at that time, led by President Jean-Bertrand Aristide) took precedence over the rights of some of the planet’s poorest and most vulnerable people.
In the 10 years since the loans were approved, the Haitian water system has actually gotten worse. In 2002, a water-poverty index released by the British-based Centre for Ecology and Hydrology ranked Haiti dead last out of 147 countries surveyed.
On June 23, Partners In Health – along with its Haitian sister organization Zanmi Lasante, the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, and the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center – released the 87-page report “Wòch nan Soley: The Denial of the Right to Water in Haiti” in New York City.
“We have to stand up for what's right,” Loune Viaud, director of operations at Zanmi Lasante, said at the press conference. “What is right is for the IDB and the international community to stop playing with the lives of innocent people.”
Viaud and the rest of the investigative team worked for six years to bring the story of the IDB loans to light. During that time, Haiti’s water system continued to deteriorate. The report states that:
Public water systems are rarely available throughout the year and close to 70 percent of the population lacks direct access to potable water at all times
The percentage of the population without access to safe drinking water has increased by at least seven percent from 1990 to 2005
Infectious diarrhea was the second leading cause of death in Haiti in 1999, and gastrointestinal infection was the leading cause of mortality for young children. These preventable diseases result primarily from unsafe drinking water and poor sanitation.
The failure to address Haiti’s crippling public-health problems is the latest in a long line of oppressive policies toward the country. Haiti, the only nation to be born from a successful slave revolution, has been hamstrung by crushing foreign debt for virtually its entire existence. It took Haiti more than 100 years to pay off a debt of 150 million francs (equivalent to $21 billion today) imposed by France in 1825 to “compensate” for the value of lost property, including the former slaves themselves. More recently, impoverished Haiti has been forced to pay $1 million a week toward settling a $1.54 billion debt piled up mainly by the dictatorial Duvalier regime, which did nothing to improve the lives of average Haitians.
Massive debt has precluded spending on desperately needed infrastructure projects. In 2003, for example, Haiti’s debt service was $57.4 million; the Haitian government’s combined budget for education, health care, environment, and transportation was $39.21 million. Meanwhile, the Haitian people continued to endure crushing poverty, which has been exacerbated by the failure to disburse the IDB loans. The report contains a telling comparison: In order to purchase the World Health Organization’s minimum standard of 20 liters of water per day, a Haitian family of four would have to spend approximately 12 percent of its annual income – the equivalent of asking a U.S. family living at the poverty level ($20,444 per year) to pay nearly $2,500 per year for water.
In Port-de-Paix, the Haitian city that was supposed to be one of the first beneficiaries of IDB loans, the private sector provides 80 percent of drinking water, and 86.7 percent of residents surveyed reported that they are “always” or “sometimes” unable to pay for water. Eighty percent indicated that water quantity had either declined or stayed the same in the five years before the survey was conducted, and 88.9 percent said water quality had gotten worse or not improved.
A household survey conducted by PIH documented the devastating impact on public health. Fifteen percent of the surveyed households reported probable recent cases of typhoid. One-third of respondents suffered from symptoms of gastrointestinal infection, the leading cause of death for Haitian children under the age of five.
“I’ve been working in Haiti for more than a decade,” commented Evan Lyon of PIH, “so I have long been aware of the connection between lack of access to clean water and preventable disease. But surveying households in Port-de-Paix opened my eyes to how essential clean water is to all facets of life, from cooking and washing, to growing food and the ability of children to attend school. At one household, we perched on rickety chairs in front of the house, ankle-deep in water, and the family was literally bailing filthy water out of their yard while I asked them questions. When we tested water at the local hospital we discovered it was just as contaminated as the water that makes people sick in the first place. The hospital's water comes from the same dirty sources.”
Although initial bids have been taken for the Port-de-Paix project, as of May 2008, no ground had been broken. Several attempts to obtain updates from the IDB’s Public Information Center were unsuccessful. (In an article about the report, The Miami Herald quoted an IDB spokesman as saying that in Port-de-Paix, funds are being disbursed to contractors and work should be completed by 2009.)
By failing to distribute loans and grants to Haiti, the IDB violated its own charter, which strictly prohibits the bank from letting politics influence its decisions. Internal documents from the U.S. Treasury Department and the office of the U.S. Executive Director at the IDB, obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, show that officials actively used American influence to block the loans in an attempt to destabilize the government led by President Aristide, who was ultimately overthrown in 2004.
International law also protects the human right to water, according to the United Nations’ Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, as well as other international covenants and declarations. If one accepts the notion of water as a fundamental right, then the U.S. government’s actions can be construed as a direct violation of its international human-rights obligations.
“I bet most of the people in this city do not think about this as a right,” Viaud said. “It is taken for granted every day. Just imagine one day without water, here in New York City. It would be a disaster -- in the news around the world. It would be outrageous.”
The report’s authors recommend a “rights-based” approach to water projects in Haiti going forward: All initiatives should focus on accountability and sustainability, and should involve Haitians living in the communities where projects will be implemented in the process.
“Wòch nan Soley: The Denial of the Right to Water in Haiti” will be launched in Port-de-Paix at a later date. French and Kreyol versions will be available soon.