Two weeks ago, officials from the University of Florida announced that a moratorium would be placed on travel to Haiti for student projects. This was somewhat redundant: There already had been a moratorium on travel to Haiti for undergrads, because of unsafe conditions on the island resulting from the earthquake earlier this year. The new moratorium, issued due to the Haitian cholera epidemic, was primarily to cancel a small lot of waivers that had been granted to members of the class of Dr. Timothy G. Townsend. Townsend is an expert in solid waste disposal. As part of a Capstone Project -- that is, a project in which students put to work in the real world some of the theoretical knowledge gained in the classroom -- Townsend's class was set to decamp to Haiti this month to create a waste-disposal system.
Their destination was a town called Cabaret, a hill-country town of more than 60,000 an hour's drive north of Port-au-Prince. "What they do with a lot of waste, it's just burned," says Dr. Townsend. "And the kinds of chemicals that can be released from the open burning of garbage can be harmful to humans." In Haiti, garbage disposal also frequently involves letting trash sit in unsanitary landfills, or leaving it on the beach. "I've seen garbage piled onto the beach -- there was no beach. There was just garbage."
Dr. Townsend's goal was simple enough. "There's no revolutionary goal," he says. "We're just trying to help them create something basic." In this case, "something basic" involves: The sorting of garbage, away from human habitats, into compostable and non-compostable groups; composting the one, and recycling or burying the other in sanitary landfills. It is possible that the process created in Cabaret could be repeated elsewhere in Haiti.
"That's a fundamental reason why we manage waste the way we do," says Dr. Townsend, "and because inappropriate disposal of waste can lead to disease transmission. Waste attracts vectors" -- that is, disease vectors. "If you have a pile of garbage, and it sits there and it's wet, it will attract insects. And insects carry diseases. Garbage attracts rats, too."
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Dr. Townsend and his students hope the travel moratorium will be lifted in January or February. Residents of Cabaret have reason to hope so, too. As Haiti wrestles with a deadly cholera epidemic, Dengue fever, carried by mosquito, is appearing is appearing with increasing frequency throughout the Caribbean.