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 anycholera 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
According to polling data, most Haitians do not want them
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
The UN is still denying its responsibility, despite studies
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
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