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Getting water to a Haitian hospital

By Coco McCabe
Hencia Josena uses the clean water to do laundry in a yard behind the hospital. "It's the culture in Haiti to wash by hand," she explains. Photo: Michael Borum

An Oxfam water bladder—5,000 liters’ worth when it's full—has made all the difference in the lives of patients, doctors, and staff at a university hospital here in Port-au-Prince.

For nine days after a catastrophic earthquake struck Haiti, the Hôpital Universitaire de l'État d'Haïti had no water for laundry or cleaning. Karine Deniel, a public health specialist for Oxfam who works on preparedness, discovered just how bad the situation was when she went to offer help. In the confusion at the site, someone grabbed her hand and led her into a building where suddenly she found herself inside a room where amputations were underway.

"They said, ‘We have just two buckets to clean the floor, and we need water for casts,’" recalls Deniel.

She noticed a woman washing the operating room floor: the water in her bucket was black with grime.

Water for cleaning

We need clean drinking water to survive, but it is easy to forget how critical water is for maintaining sanitary conditions. Before Deniel arrived at Hôpital Universitaire de l'État d'Haïti, another aid group had hooked the hospital up with clean water for drinking, but there was none for cleaning. Deniel immediately arranged to have a bladder—a collapsible tank, like a giant plastic bag—installed near the back of the hospital.

During the installation, an agitated man approached Deniel and begged her to come see the morgue. The unwashed cobblestones outside were a grim reminder of the human toll the quake took on this sprawling city. Inside, the space was filled with bodies. More lay on hospital beds outside. Like their colleagues in surgery, the workers were desperate for water to clean the site.

A few days later, conditions are much improved. A truck comes daily to fill the water bladder, as plump and yellow as an egg yolk, and now Oxfam is also trucking water into the kitchen facilities, where a large cistern at the back holds the supply.

The workers at the morgue and the laundry are very happy with Oxfam’s quick response, reports Deniel. "It's so important."

Hencia Josena is one of the women who is doing laundry—all by hand in massive metal bowls with water from the bladder—in a yard behind the hospital.

"It's the culture in Haiti to wash by hand," she explains.

There are, in fact, industrial-sized washing and drying machines suited to the hospital’s volume of laundry near the yard. The washing machines, however, haven't worked for a couple of years. A large hot water heater also stands idle. There's no gas to warm the water, explains the man in charge of the facility.

Nearby, the morgue is empty late in the afternoon. A sign on the door says no bodies are to be brought to the site after 3:30 p.m. Outside, two dusty hearses are parked—reminders of a time when burying the dead was a far more dignified event than it has become in the chaos following the earthquake.


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