Global Policy Forum

The United Nations Must Cure Haiti of the Cholera Epidemic it Caused


Haiti has faced many tragedies, including coups and environmental disasters. The UN peacekeeping mission has made matters worse. A cholera epidemic, spread by troops from Nepal, has taken thousands of lives and the UN has failed to respond adequately. This article argues that the hundreds of millions spent on the peacekeepers could be better spent on clean drinking water and sanitation in the country. 

By Mark Weisbrot

November 12, 2012

Before Hurricane Sandy slammed into the east coast of the United States, it killed 54 people in Haiti and left tens of thousands more homeless. Haiti is especially vulnerable because of its poor infrastructure and environmental destruction, so people die there –as they did during the earthquake in January 2010 – in greater numbers than they would in other countries subject to the same natural disasters.

But there is one disaster that was brought to Haiti directly by people, not by nature. It was not caused by shifting tectonic plates or extreme weather (or climate change). That disaster is the cholera epidemic that struck Haiti two years ago.

Most people I talk to don't even know that United Nations troops brought this deadly disease to Haiti in October of 2010. There hadn't been any cholera in Haiti for at least 100 years, if ever, until some UN troops from South Asia dumped human waste into a tributary of the country's main water supply. Since then, more than 7,600 Haitians have died and over 600,000 have gotten sick.

If Haiti were any other country in this hemisphere, a human-created disaster of this proportion would be a big international scandal and everyone would know about it. Not to mention the institution responsible for inflicting this damage – in this case, the UN – would be held accountable. At the very least, they would have to get rid of the epidemic.

In this case, getting rid of the epidemic could be easily accomplished. Cholera is transmitted mainly through drinking water that is contaminated by the deadly bacteria. To get rid of it, you need to create an infrastructure where people have clean drinking water and adequate sanitation. The Pan American Health Organization estimates that this would cost about $1bn for Haiti. In fact, that is close to what the UN has been spending in just one year to keep its 10,000 troops in the country.

Furthermore, these troops have no legitimate mission in Haiti. They are not "peacekeeping" troops, as they are often inaccurately described. There is no peace agreement for them to enforce, nor is there a post-conflict situation that would justify their presence.

In fact, the UN troops were brought into Haiti in 2004, after Haiti's democratically-elected government was overthrown by a coup that the United States and its allies helped organize. Their stay in Haiti has been marred by a series of scandals and abuses, including the killing of civilians, and a number of prominent cases of rape and sexual abuse of Haitians. According to polling data, most Haitians do not want them there.

So, there is one obvious source of money for ridding the country of cholera, but there is also plenty of money that governments pledged after the earthquake that has not been distributed. Only about 53% of the $5.35bn pledged by international donors has been delivered. For the US government, it is just 27% (pdf), or $250m, of $900m pledged. If these governments want to help the UN fix the mess that they created, they have already committed the funds to do so.

And why shouldn't they pay? It wasn't the Haitian people that invited these troops to Haiti in the first place – it was the "international community".

The UN is still denying its responsibility, despite studies published by the New England Journal of Medicine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and even by the UN itself (pdf) tracking the origin of Haiti's cholera bacteria to UN soldiers. A study by a team of 15 scientists last year produced even more conclusive evidence, using whole genome sequence typing and two other methods that matched the cholera strain in Haiti to a sample from Nepal that was taken at the time that the Nepalese UN troops arrived in the country.

In short, there is proof beyond reasonable doubt that the UN mission is responsible for bringing this disease to Haiti.

What's more outrageous is that cholera is still killing people in Haiti, two years on. Since the rainy season started in April, more than 514 Haitians have died from cholera and more than 60,000 people have fallen sick. In any other country, this would be considered an outrage, especially given the origin of the epidemic.

Last year, the CEPR published a report showing that international health providers had cut back on cholera treatment facilities just before the rainy season, contributing to a spike in cholera infections. Unfortunately, the same thing happened this year: by June, there were just 61 cholera treatment units and 17 treatment centers, as compared with 205 and 38 the year before. Partners in Health is warning that cholera funding from the CDC is about to expire, even as a new surge in infections is expected in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

After the earthquake, there was much talk about "building back better" in Haiti, with disappointing results. The very least that the international community can do is to fix the damage that its members themselves have caused since the earthquake. That means starting right now, with the urgency that any other country would expect in matters of life and death.



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