MIAMI--Long before the earthquake, Haiti was mired in a crisis that only a few experts noticed - a severe lack of clean drinking water. The country's 10 million people had drinking water from springs and rivers and wells and a broken-down municipal water system in the capital, Port-Au-Prince. But a great deal of the water was loaded with bacteria and parasites and, in some cases, chemicals and other pollutants.
The foul water undermined everything in Haiti. It caused chronic diarrhea, dysentery, hepatitis and even typhoid and cholera. The diseases filled hospital beds, kept children out of school and grown ups from work. And the water-borne diseases caused death. The Pan American Health Organization estimates that half of all the deaths in Haiti in recent years -- apart from those in calamities like floods and hurricanes -- have been the result of water-borne diseases. In most cases, severe diarrhea took hold. People became dehydrated and very quickly were gone.
Many countries share Haiti's plight. According to the World Health Organization, at least 1 billion people around the world do not have clean drinking water. Even more do not have toilets. The lack of clean water and toilets is a disaster. Each year, about two million people die from water-borne diseases. That is eight times the deaths in the Asian tsunami in 2004, and it happens every year. It is not on the radar of most Americans.
Most of the victims are young children. They die quietly, at home and in little clinics in slums and out-of-the way places in the countryside in India and Nepal, in Bolivia and Honduras. Hardly anyone notices that, according to United Nations data, more children die from simply drinking unhealthy water than from HIV/AIDS, malaria and measles combined.
These people do not have to die. All the technology for providing clean drinking water exists. It is not very complicated and it is not incredibly expensive. But almost nowhere in the developing world does clean water get high priority. Drilling wells and running pipelines and building water purification plants have never really captured the imagination of political leaders. The people who suffer most are the poorest, the hungriest, the least influential.
It is not that nothing is being done about providing clean water. Even in Haiti, many water projects were underway before the earthquake. Some had budgets in the millions of dollars. Some involved small private groups that were able to put in a few wells or a few dozen water treatment devices. One group, International Action, says it has installed 110 neighborhood water tank chlorinators in Port-au-Prince. But in Haiti and elsewhere, the efforts have scarcely made a dent.
Nowhere in the developing world is there a plan that coordinates national or region water projects, small and large. Inevitably, some of the good work overlaps. Some of it never gets finished. Quite often maintenance is overlooked and systems collapse. For example, in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, drinking water is fine at the treatment plant. But the water mains are corroded and punctured. They lie in the same trenches as the sewer lines and filthy waste sloshes into the drinking water.
As the rebuilding of Haiti gets underway, billions of dollars are going to be spent. Some of those dollars, perhaps a billion or more, should be dedicated to cleaning up the country's drinking water and to making sure it stays clean. It would help put Haiti on a sound footing for the future perhaps more than any other single thing. A well-orchestrated plan for providing clean drinking water to the people of Haiti could be a model for the world.