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.
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.