On the way out of town, down the hill from Port-au-Prince, is the city’s only garbage dump. Every day, more than 150 trucks full of human waste and rotting garbage make their way, dripping and splashing to a stinking, toxic mountain of sludge.
"We have filled four [plots] since the quake with human waste," explains Carl Henry Vielot, the manager of the landfill. "But this is the last [plot], and once that’s full, I don’t know what I’ll do."
A sanitation crisis
The dump has tripled in size over the past three months since the devastating January 12 earthquake that tore this city apart. With people living anywhere they can find a clearing, and no place to dispose of the entrails of daily life, garbage trucks are working overtime to clear out the waste and put it all in one place.
To help with this issue, aid agencies like World Vision are building temporary latrines in the middle of the city. These are basically holes in the ground, with a safe, waterproof shell for privacy and a secure lid to cover the hole. With more than 1.5 million left homeless across the capital, the holes fill up fast.
Usually, the latrines get emptied at night and are taken to the landfill, left to dry in huge swimming pools of human waste. But with space quickly running out at the garbage dump in Port-au-Prince, the overflow of toxic waste has become a sobering problem.
Creative approaches to massive challenges
Sanitation is not always thought of as a key component of emergency relief, but in disaster zones like Haiti, it’s a crucial humanitarian need. And with hurricane season approaching and concerns mounting over flooding and waterborne disease, World Vision is implementing new ways of addressing it.
"We’re providing a new kind of enzyme to break down solid waste into a less toxic liquid," says Theo Huitema, World Vision’s water and sanitation expert. "This means the latrines can be pumped out instead of being left to dry, and the smell is reduced for people living in already very difficult environments."
World Vision is also helping those who live and usually "scavenge" for anything they can find in the 250 acres of waste by providing a daily wage in exchange for manual labor.
Men and women paid by World Vision are digging deep trenches along the entrance to the landfill to prevent green, murky water from seeping into the tents and ramshackle shelters erected in and around the site.
Providing income, preparing for future risks
This cash-for-work program has been established all around Port-au-Prince to prepare many displaced families for this year’s hurricane season. Participants are also being paid to build and maintain latrines and bathing facilities, dig trenches in the camps to help ease the effects of heavy rains, and reinforce the temporary shelters with new tarps and poles.
One benefactor of this program is Alexis Kestha, 35, who supervises a team of 20 workers on the outskirts of the landfill as they clear debris from a plot where houses used to stand.
"I was unemployed before," Alexis explains. "I have a 5-year-old son, and we live on the dump site. This work will help me buy food [and] clothes and repair my house, which was damaged in the quake."
It’s easy to become discouraged looking at the overflowing sludge of Port-au-Prince. But even here, where bulging pigs roam freely, quake survivors are finding ways to cope. However, as the rains loom and the issue of waste disposal reaches a crisis point, more attention and more funding must be put into the unsanitary side of the relief effort.