In rural Haiti, looking for a way to make clean water sustainable


Outside Port-au-Prince, Haiti, a woman arrives at Wharf Jeremie in August to fill her two containers with water that she will use to wash her dishes. (Dieu Nalio Chery/AP)
October 9, 2012

CAVAILLON, Haiti — Marc Antoine Castel spends five hours a day, and often weekends and holidays, at the office of the town water system, which he runs. He does it for love, although he hopes one day to do it for money, too.

“If someone is a professional water operator with no other activities, he will be broke,” Castel, 37, said glumly of the current arrangement. He makes his living as a high school teacher and a lawyer.

Antoine Jean Narol, Castel’s fellow water operator down the road in Simon, knows the problem. He teaches accounting at a local university and spends three hours a day at the local water authority, supervising workers, preparing reports and drawing no pay.

“If someone has to suffer, it has to be me,” he said simply.

Castel and Narol are part of an experiment to make clean water a business in Haiti’s villages. And in a word, business is tough.

For centuries, rural Haitians were on their own when it came to water, getting it where they could and carrying it home in containers balanced on the head.

Things got easier in the past ­half-century with the rise of locally engineered water systems, many built by foreign donors. The systems piped water from streams, springs and wells to public pumps and spigots. Sometimes the water was disinfected, sometimes not. “Water committees” made of local residents ran the operations.

Such arrangements are common throughout the developing world, where $50 billion was spent on rural water projects between 1990 and 2008, according to one estimate. But development experts now conclude they don’t work.

The cost of running a water system for 10 years is three times the cost of installing one. Donors, however, almost never pay for ongoing operations, and user fees (if they exist) usually aren’t enough to do so. Plus, the volunteers rarely have the expertise to run the show.

“In almost every village there is some sort of water system, but 50 percent are not working,” said Christophe Prevost, a water and sanitation specialist at the World Bank. “It only takes three to five years to get the service completely ruined.”

Haiti’s national water-and-sanitation agency, Dinepa, is experimenting with ways to bring enough professionalism to rural water systems to keep them going.

“The idea is to create a private enterprise,” said Michael Merisier, a Dinepa engineer helping oversee the project. “In the end, the system should be profitable. But it is not there yet.”

The water systems that Castel and Narol operate are among 10 in the southern part of the country being built — or rebuilt — with a $10 million grant from the World Bank. The men don’t own the infrastructure, but their pay derives in part from a percentage of the revenue generated. One day, they are their fellow “professional water operators” could be rich.

For now, however, they’re basically working for free and sweating like people at Silicon Valley start-ups.

‘Improved’ sources

Sixty-nine percent of Haiti’s population gets drinking water from an “improved source” — chlorinated and delivered through pipes or a capped well that protects it from contamination. In rural districts, only 51 percent of people have improved water, far below the global average of 81 percent of rural residents and up only one percentage point from the rate in 2000.

But unlike water problems in many poor countries, supply isn’t the problem. Haiti has abundant rainfall and steep terrain that can drive water by gravity to where people live. Cleanliness, however, is another matter.

One in nine children in rural Haiti dies before age 5, and 17 percent of those deaths are related to unclean water. The problem came dramatically into view in October 2010 when cholera was unintentionally introduced by U.N. peacekeeping troops brought in from Nepal after the January earthquake.

That bacterial disease was one of the few health problems Haiti did not have. How the troops’ infected feces ended up in the Artibonite River is a matter of debate. What is certain is that some of central Haiti’s poorest people used the river as a water source.

There have been 535,000 cases of cholera since the outbreak, 7,100 fatal. In the second week in September, there were 1,456 new cases. Infection can be averted by assuring a supply of clean water or by preventing the water’s contamination.

In Cavaillon, improving the water required rehabilitation and protection of nine miles of pipe that originates at a spring far up a hillside. The water flows downhill through 10 villages of subsistence farmers and tradesmen. The system had been built 25 years earlier but had deteriorated from poor maintenance and dozens of illegal connections.

“Everyone was a plumber,” Castel, the new operator, noted dryly.

Today, 8,000 people are served by Cavaillon’s water system. There are 265 household connections, with a capacity for 500. Such convenience is unheard of in rural Haiti.

In most cases, the water goes to an outside tap, not to sinks and bathrooms inside. Customers are charged $4 for 800 gallons a month. They pay extra for more. Flow is measured by a meter the size of a car battery next to the spigot.

Operators such as Castel and Narol get a week’s instruction in how to manage a water system and meet several times a year to exchange ideas and get further training. They do not wield wrench and pipe themselves. They hire plumbers, meter readers and the people who sell water at a few cents a gallon at 15 public kiosks. They keep the books, market the product, collect the fees, decide when to cut someone off and interact with the water committee, which has a purely advisory role.

Getting people to pay has been a problem.

“There’s a Haitian proverb, ‘Water belongs to God,’ ” said Merisier, the Dinepa engineer. “We say: ‘Yes, it belongs to God. But you are paying us to bring it to you.’ ”

Stanley Jerome, in charge of educating the public, said optimistically: “People are getting the message. They are showing a willingness to pay. But it is taking awhile to be fully motivated.”

Only half of the system’s household customers regularly pay their bills in full. The rest are in arrears by at least two months. Castel has disconnected only 10 since he took over in November 2010.

For residents, the convenience is hard to beat.

“In the past, I had to go all the way to the river to get water,” said Cheslene Desobert, 22. “Now it’s right here.”

She was holding her 1-year-old son, Djovani, and filling a five-gallon plastic bucket at a tap outside her house near Castel’s office. The tiny compound was fenced to keep the chickens in.

The six-member household signed up in November. Before that, someone had to make the half-hour round trip to get water three times a day.

Outages, other setbacks

Things are more tenuous in Narol’s territory, Simon, a community of 3,500 down the road.

The water there comes from a well in a lush dell. Unlike in Cavaillon, gravity here is an enemy, not a friend. The water has to be pumped uphill to a holding tank from which it flows to consumers.

Last year, a storm blew a tree onto a power line. An improperly installed surge protector did not work, and the seven-month-old pump burned out. The water system was so new it did not have enough money saved to replace the pump.

For months, people went back to collecting water the old way while Narol tried to find a solution. In the end, the World Bank proprietors agreed to replace the pump — one time.

When the system finally reopened, there were a lot more people who wanted to get on it. Narol could not accommodate them. The outage caused severe cash-flow problems, and he does not have money to buy meters for new customers at $150 apiece. He has 400 households on the waiting list but enough income to connect only a few each month.

Meanwhile, he is spending money to run a gas generator to drive the pump. Even though a surge protector has been installed and inspected, he has not worked up the courage to reconnect to the power grid.

One more blown pump and he is done for.

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