July 26, 2013
The number of experts casting doubt on the likelihood of the U.N. having been the source of Haiti’s deadly cholera epidemic is getting increasingly smaller. In what Foreign Policy’s Turtle Bay blogger Colum Lynch calls a “dramatic retreat,” a panel of independent U.N. experts who earlier had reported that the outbreak’s cause “was not the fault” of any “group or individual” and cited environmental factors – most notably Haiti’s lack of adequate sanitation – as being partly at fault, have now determined that U.N. troops from Nepal “most likely” were the cause.
Lynch goes on to write:
the four scientists — Alejandro Cravioto, Daniele Lantagne, G. Balakrish Nair, Claudio F. Lanata — who wrote the original report say that new evidence that has come to light in the past two years. While not conclusive, that evidence has strengthened the case against the United Nations.
The experts — who no longer work for the United Nations — also defended their initial findings, saying the “majority of evidence” at the time was “circumstantial.” They added, that the “current strain Nepal strain of cholera was not available for molecular analysis” at the time.
The team’s new report tracks the arrival in October 2010 of a contingent of Nepalese peacekeepers from Kathmandu to a U.N. encampment in the Haitian village of Mirebalais, which sits on the banks of the Artibonite River.
Lynch writes that
The report stated that the peacekeepers had constructed a series a “haphazard “system of pipes from the U.N. camps showers and toilets to the six fiberglass tanks. The “black water waste,” which included human feces, was then transferred to an open, unfenced, septic pit, where children and animals frequently roamed. The system provided “significant potential” for contamination.
But in fact the report does not say the U.N. troops themselves “constructed” the “haphazard” pipe system themselves; the U.N. is supposed to have hired a contractor, Sanco Enterprises SA, to facilitate the removal of human waste from the base. The U.N. does of course bear blame for the contractor’s negligence, however.
The panel ruled out the possibility that the cholera strain had originated in the region, saying the lethal strain was “very similar but not identical to the South Asian strain of Vibrio Cholerae.”
“The exact source of introduction of cholera into Haiti will never be known with scientific certainty, as it is not possible to travel back in time to conduct the necessary investigations,” the panel’s members wrote in its new report.. “However, the preponderance of the evidence and the weight of the circumstantial evidence does lead to the conclusion that personnel associated with the Mirebalais MINUSTAH [The U.N. Mission in Haiti] facility were the most likely source of introduction of cholera into Haiti.”
Lynch notes that “The latest findings will increase pressure on the United Nations to acknowledge responsibility for introducing cholera into the country.” As we have recently described, the U.N. has taken a defensive posture both toward its own responsibility for the epidemic and for ensuring funding for its own cholera eradication plan (prepared with the Haitian and Dominican governments and NGO’s). A new article from Haiti Grassroots Watch (HGW) warns that the lack of funding for the plan could mean “that the disease will likely be endemic to Haiti for years to come.”
Noting that “the majority of Haitians – about eight million people – do not have access to a hygienic sanitation system,” HGW cites Physicians for Haiti’s Rishi Rattan as saying that it is “highly likely that cholera will become endemic in Haiti without full funding of Haiti’s cholera elimination plan by entities such as the United Nations (UN).”
HGW goes on to report:
The death rate is on the rise in the countryside. Today, more than four percent of those infected die due to the lack of cholera treatment centers. At the epidemic’s peak, there were 285. Today, there are only 28. Once financing ran out, most humanitarian agencies abandoned the country.
Worse, one of the two large waste treatment facilities built following the earthquake recently went out of service.
As the international community fails to fully fund the cholera eradication plan and ensure adequate sanitation and clean drinking water for Haiti’s population, HGW describes one important, smaller-scale alternative in treating sewage: how the small non-profit Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods (SOIL) is stepping in to help dispose of human waste and convert it into usable compost.