Haiti’s fight for basic human rights often finds its way into the Kreyol language’s vivid and plentiful proverbs. Sak vid pa kanpe means that a hungry person cannot do anything – literally, an empty sack cannot stand up. Of the many root causes of the current food crisis that is rendering the poor majority of Haitians unable to feed them themselves, the lack of water rights is of utmost significance.
A focus group of Haitian woman in Port-de-Paix concluded that the water problem is what often causes massive hunger. They reported that the water problem is causing “people to die in its hands.”
Bad water policies, in fact, largely follow the same lines as bad food policies. Privatization and free trade guidelines set forth by international financial institutions make it nearly impossible for a country like Haiti to be able to provide clean and sufficient water to the growing population. International policies aimed at structural adjustment and export-led growth are linked to the commoditization of water and the poor’s increasing difficulty in accessing it.
Haiti’s trade agreements make it one of the most open economies in the world, yet Neoliberal policies have continually battered the country. One such example is the US government’s approach to loan lending within the Inter-American Development Bank. After Haiti was forced to reduce basic services and adhere to privatization, the US government made it clear that if any money was to be lent, the Haitian government was to pursue unrelated political priorities that would benefit the US and further worsen the local economy. In one case, these conditions involved removing all subsidies on petrol (which were already lower than the highly petrol subsidized US), an option that would have shocked the entire country.
Countries in the Global North that are responsible for the policies that ail countries like Haiti are all too often oblivious to the human suffering they cause. Another Haitian Kreyol proverb says it beautifully – wòch nan dlo pa konnen doulè wòch nan soley – rocks in the water do not know the suffering of rocks in the sun.
Grassroots International and its partners and allies in Haiti recognize the need to address these underlying causes. Every Grassroots International partner in Haiti works for access to and management of water, some within their communities and others at the national level. Each of them is intimately acquainted with the central place of water in their struggle for a new and better Haiti.
A joint report recently released by Partners in Health, Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, and Haiti-based Zanmi Lansante outlines the details of Haiti’s water situation. Wòch nan Soley: The Denial of the Right to Water in Haiti provides an intimate study of the situation on the ground in Haiti and the past and present policies that fuel it. This report explains the linkages and suggests moving forward in a way that will work for Haiti rather than against it by adapting a rights-based approach. A rights-based approach includes the key elements of empowerment, indivisibility, non-discrimination and attention to vulnerable groups, accountability, and participation. Progressing in this direction moves away from the politics of power, allowing Haitians to ensure their own survival.
Haiti’s right to water is at the very core of achieving Haiti’s other basic human rights. Adequate, clean water is a core component of food sovereignty and the right to life with dignity. Dignity breeds hope, and according to a well known proverb, lespwa fè viv. Hope gives life.