Marines say fixes to Haiti's environmental woes only temporary
CARREFOUR, Haiti — U.S. Marines say the help they are giving Haitians to overcome some of the environmental issues the country faces are only short-term fixes for problems that plagued the country long before January’s earthquake.
The Marines, from the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, are helping Haitians in Carrefour, a medium-sized city just west of Port-au-Prince, with problems related to flooding, trash, sanitation and overcrowding in camps for an estimated 250,000 homeless people.
Locals use waterways to dispose of such things as plastic containers, food waste and sewage. If a stream or drain isn’t nearby, trash piles up in streets and vacant lots.
“This is their traditional way of disposing of trash,” said Capt. Rebecca Popielski, 32, of Alexandria, Va., a Marine civil affairs officer.
“It (trash) breeds flies and water pools in it,” she said. “Smell is an issue and they have rodents and other animals in there.”
The Marines are trying to get people to deal with their trash problem before seasonal heavy rains arrive, she said.
“If there is water it is going to get worse because of the flies and mosquitoes and everything associated with large piles of trash,” she said.
Carlo Hectol, 36, who described himself as a leader in one of the Carrefour camps, said it’s been difficult to get residents to participate in sanitation efforts since aid workers paid some of them to dig latrines and clean up the camp.
“Since then nobody does anything unless they get paid,” he said. “They say, ‘If those guys are getting paid to do it, why should we do it for free?’ ”
The Marines, however, are getting Haitian men to labor for up to five hours in hot sun on projects for a simple fee — a single meal in the form of a U.S. military MRE field ration.
“We are trying to change the way they do business,” Popielski said.
The Marines recently completed a project at a camp that involved digging a large burn-pit similar to the ones used to dispose of refuse at U.S. bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.
First Lt. Andrew Nelson, 25, of Camp Lejeune, N.C., an engineer working with Popielski’s civil affairs unit, said the Marines also planted the seed of a recycling program by cordoning off areas for disposal of glass and metal near the burn pit.
“We would like to give them an opportunity to start a recycling program,” he said, but he added that the Haitian government or a nongovernmental organization will have to run such a program.
The main goal of separating the trash is to make sure only combustible items go into the burn pit, he said.
“The metal and glass will have to be collected eventually,” he said. “Composting was suggested (for other types of trash) but that’s trying to do too much too fast.”
The overall goal of the project was to get all of the camp’s trash in one area away from where people were living, he said.
“The burn pit is a quick and easy way to get rid of trash,” he said.
A removal program being started by NGOs in Carrefour will eventually replace short-term fixes like the burn pit, he said.
Bernice Robertson, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group who prepared a report on Haiti’s environment last year, said overcrowding is the root of many problems.
“Port-au-Prince is a city designed for 300,000 to 400,000 people,” she said. “The latest figures we see show it is bordering on 2 million people.”
“Lots of people equals lots of trash,” she said.
Robertson said the issue of polluted Haitian waterways was identified in her report before the earthquake. So was deforestation, which affects Haiti’s main industry — agriculture — and leads to flooding that costs the country a billion dollars each rainy season, she said.
“These are losses that the Haitian government can ill afford,” she said. “For this to be occurring almost yearly is a great loss to the country.”
Robertson said earthquake reconstruction is an excellent opportunity for the Haitian government to address environmental issues.