The author discusses his own experience with cholera in Haiti and the importance of water infrastructure around the world, especially in developing countries. He says the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals should focus on water treatment and water quality so that waterborne diseases can be eradicated and countries like Haiti can focus on development.
Clean Water: UN Sustainable Development Goals Must Emphasize Water Treatment
Ernst-Wesley Laine, American Water Works Association Journal
As the world’s governments gather at the United Nations to work on a new round of global goals to follow the 15-year Millennium Development Goalperiod, the author reflects on the importance of water treatment in the new UN Sustainable Development Goal for safe water.
A few months into my work in rural Haiti
installing chlorinators, I was sitting in the passenger
seat of our truck and suddenly experienced
a violent stomachache followed by bouts
of vomiting. Although overwhelmed by the sudden
symptoms of the illness, I felt mostly exasperation.
We were in the middle of a cholera crisis,
and I was frustrated that I had fallen ill to the
very bacterium from which I was desperately trying
to protect the rural poor. My illness interrupted
a couple of days of my work. For too
many Haitians, however, such illnesses are a tragic
way of life.
The particular strain of cholera that sickened
me has been proven to be virulent and hard to
slow down in other parts of the world. Everyone
is vulnerable to it. Since October 2010, the cholera
epidemic in Haiti has killed more than 8,540 people
that we know of—and likely many more in
rural hinterlands. Another 700,000 people have
been infected. Compare that with the United
States where cholera is rare, resulting in an average
of six cases per year (Newton et al, 2011). The
problem isn’t limited to cholera. Cholera, typhoid
fever, and chronic diarrhea are all contracted from
bad water. Very little natural water on this planet
is intrinsically safe for human consumption,
because most of it, other than water from deepbore
well systems, is constantly exposed to infiltration
and growth by waterborne pathogens.
Patients who suffer from these waterborne diseases
occupy more than half the beds in hospitals in
poor countries. For too many Haitians and others
in the developing world, it’s too late for recovery
after contracting one of these diseases.
But it’s not too late to stem the tide of global
waterborne illness through aggressive water treatment.
For example, in the Southeast Department
of Haiti, a private–public partnership with local
stakeholders yielded a dramatic reduction in the
number of cholera deaths through chlorination of
municipal water reservoirs. Without a doubt, if we
are to achieve the health-related goals associated
with the safe water targets, appropriate water
treatment systems and water delivery infrastructure
will be essential.
Recently, the United Nations, while remaining
firmly committed to the full and timely achievement
of the Millennium Development Goals, launched a
new initiative aimed at integrating new Sustainable
Development Goals into its future agenda. I strongly
believe that any new water and sanitation goal must
emphasize water quality and promote investments in
water treatment. Sound public health policies combined
with efficient water treatment methods will allow many to
live healthier, fuller lives.
Paul Farmer, an infectious disease physician and UN
Deputy Special Envoy to Haiti, recently voiced his support
for the reconstruction of municipal water systems in
Haiti to deliver clean water. Healthy water can serve as a
foundation for Haiti’s rebirth. Indeed, a healthier population
is more likely to direct its capital and resources away
from cholera treatment and toward necessities such as
agriculture and entrepreneurship. These are key factors
in achieving sustainable development and fostering a
As it develops a new set of Sustainable Development
Goals, the United Nations has an opportunity to guarantee
that the poor have their share of the fruits of scientific
progress—water chlorination and filtration. A
focus on water treatment will help reduce preventable
deaths caused by waterborne pathogens. It will also
help fulfill one of the key pillars of human security—the
right to live with dignity. The curse of waterborne diseases—
the leading cause of death around the world—
has no justification in our age. The value of water treatment
needs to be reflected clearly in the new UN
Sustainable Development Goals.
—Ernst-Wesley Laine is from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and
founder of the grassroots nonprofit group Haiti
Philanthropy Inc. He is a recent graduate of the
international policy studies program of Monterey
Institute of International Studies, a graduate school of
Middlebury College. Laine has worked on development
projects in Haiti since 2010 and is a recipient of the
Davis Peace Prize Fellowship for his project, “Cholera
Prevention: Service, Solidarity, and Peace.” He may be
contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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