- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 25, 2002

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti Water gushes from a row of spigots as people crowd around, jostling for a chance to fill buckets and bottles.

Nadine Jean, a 20-year-old student, will lug her bucket into the hills to her family's home a mile and a half away.

"Where I live, there's no water at all," she said.

Few people have access to clean water in Haiti, and most must pay for it. The Inter-American Development Bank could help, but a $54 million loan to improve access to potable water is on hold because of Haiti's political crisis, hampering even modest progress in the Western Hemisphere's poorest country.

Other loans also are held up. The United States, a major donor to the Washington-based bank, has blocked release of nearly $150 million in low-interest loans until Haiti's government and opposition settle a long-running election dispute. Also frozen are loans of $19 million for education reform, $50 million for improved roads and $23 million for medical supplies and clinics.

Haiti's government says the water loan is particularly important because infections and diseases spread through contaminated water are a leading cause of death.

In Washington, the Congressional Black Caucus has submitted a resolution that urges President Bush to release the loans.

"In every sense, the disbursement of these loans can mean the difference between life and death," said Rep. Barbara Lee, California Democrat.

The World Health Organization estimates that 46 percent of Haiti's 8 million people have safe drinking water. Networks of water pipes haven't kept up with heavy migration from rural areas to cities, and many water sources are contaminated.

Crowds are common at public fountains that sell filtered water in the capital, Port-au-Prince, a city of 2.5 million people where even well water must be purified.

At the hillside neighborhood of Tete de l'Eau, which means fountainhead, women, children and teen-agers crowd the taps, passing coins through a metal grate to an attendant. It costs 10 Haitian cents (2 U.S. cents) for a gallon or 40 cents (8 cents) for 5 gallons. Demand is heavy.

"Hey, get out of the way," one girl shouts.

"Why are you pushing me?" another demands of a boy filling a bottle ahead of her.

Elsewhere, people buy water from private vendors, often paying more. So even water eats away at precious income in Haiti, where the vast majority of people live on less than $1 a day.

U.S. officials defend the freezing of loans and channeling of nearly $55 million in aid this year to nongovernmental agencies as a way to support democracy in Haiti.

"We do not believe enough has been done yet to move the political process forward to assure ourselves that additional aid will be used in the most effective way at this time," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said this year.

The European Union similarly has frozen $45 million in grants.

That only "makes the political situation worse," said Mario Dupuy, Haiti's secretary of state for communication.

The opposition accuses the government of using the withholding of aid as an alibi for its chronic mismanagement after the 2000 elections.

Even if the loans are approved, their disbursement is expected to be delayed by required reforms. And many Haitians agree the Inter-American Development Bank's water loan of $54 million would be a drop in the bucket.

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