Making Water Safe in Haiti 

Filters and Dispensers for the Haitian People


by | Apr 19, 2013

Photo of the polluted canal in Cité Féquiére, the poorest neighborhood within the Cité Soliel slum of Haiti.

A canal in Cité Féquiére, the poorest neighborhood within the Cité Soliel slum. Photo by Linda Kachadurian

Madame Aubry swoops through the front door of her two-story cement blockhouse in the Delmas neighborhood of Port-au-Prince to greet her guests. She is a petite bundle of cheer, with a ponytail that swings in synch to the allegro tempo of her gait. Her caramel skin is punctuated only by a beauty mark below her left eye and a few beads of sweat that have aggregated in her cupid’s bow.

Her two visitors today are Canadian-American Chris Rolling, executive director of the Pierre Payen-based non-profit Clean Water for Haiti, and his friend Johnson Alexandre, who is a board member of the organization, and a commander with Haiti’s anti-terrorism unit. The pair has come to check-in with Aubry, who is a recipient of one of Clean Water’s Biosand water purification filters.

An estimated four million out of the nine million inhabitants of Port-au-Prince have no access to safe water and are thus subjected to a tidal wave of waterborne diseases such as cholera, typhoid, hepatitis, and chronic diarrhea. Through Clean Water’s subsidized filter program, Haitian families are able to receive the systems, which cost $55 to make, for $5.

Rolling, who has merry, blue eyes and a curly ponytail that bounces when he laughs, speaks to Aubry in rapid-pace Kreyol. The three go inside and climb a curved staircase that opens into a spacious kitchen. The Biosand filter stands in one corner, in a shaft of sunshine that beams through the adjacent full-length window. The filter is a 32” high, by 12” wide by 12” deep concrete rectangle that has been painted an ethereal baby blue. Perched on top is a hand-carved wooden lid.

Aubry can’t seem to sing its praises enough: the system keeps her family in good health, and it saves them money because they no longer need to buy expensive bottles of purified water. Instead, they can go the more economical route of having a water truck fill their large cistern with water for the Biosand system. Although she can’t articulate exactly why, she also insists that water from the filter has a more pleasing taste than bottled water. “I don’t know,” she says, “it’s just better.”

She glides over to the filter, and removes the lid. She cradles it in her arms and sets it down on the kitchen table, where Alexandre is sitting—a solemn column in a black silk suit—adjusting his necktie. Aubry and Rolling peer into the body of the filter. “Everything looks good,” he proclaims.

Each system is filled with 90 pounds of fine, washed sand that filters 99 percent of all microbes, such as bacteria, protozoa, viruses, and worms, through a combination of biological and physical processes that take place within the sand column’s biolayer.

Earlier in the day, Rolling and Alexandre, who both use Biosand filters in their own homes, were exchanging stories about small creatures that had paid visits to them through their running water. Alexandre gave a dramatic re-enactment of the day that worms came through the faucet of his bathroom sink. Rolling countered with a tale of baby shrimp that some of the more resourceful neighborhood children had wrapped in cheesecloth and dropped into a tasty vegetable stew.

The Port-au-Prince chapter of another non-profit, Pure Water for the World, also opts for the Biosand method. Every day, their factory produces 14 filters that are painted amped-up pastel hues—neon pistachio, electric ballerina pink, and psychedelic cerulean blue—to match the color schemes of the walls of the schools and health clinics in which they are installed. Each year, the organization provides Biosand systems to over 2,400 homes, schools, health clinics, and orphanages.

Like Clean Water for Haiti, Pure Water for the World is meticulous about the quality of sand that goes into their filters. On a Saturday morning, project coordinator, Rony Seraphin, is inspecting the goods at his organization’s factory. “The premium stuff is here,” he announces. With a flourish of the wrist, he pulls back the corner of a tarp that is covering a mound of silky, beige sand. He scoops up a handful and gives an approving nod as it streams through his fingers like water.

Both organizations also place a heavy emphasis on educating the recipients of the Biosand filters on proper implementation and maintenance. For water systems that are installed in schools, Pure Water requires that teachers attend 2½ day-long workshops that also cover hygiene education, so that they can, in turn, train their students.

Some economists resist the idea of the human right to safe water—made official by the United Nations General Assembly in 2010—because they claim that it is difficult to calibrate which type of right (i.e. education, healthcare, etc.) should take priority. Harvard professor Michael Kremer thinks otherwise. The Gates Professor of Developing Societies in the Department of Economics, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, and research affiliate for Innovations for Poverty Action, rallies for the relative importance of the right to safe water by pointing out the cost-effectiveness of purifying water, thereby preventing health problems that would be even more expensive to treat. He believes that within the existing government budget—and with a little help from the Ministry of Education, endowment funds, and private firm developers—it is feasible, financially, to have virtually universal access to safe water.

According to Jeremy Hand, managing director of the safe water program at the New Haven-based non-profit, Innovations for Poverty Action, it was Kremer’s 2005 research in Kenya, studying rural water sources, that was the genesis for the organization’s Chlorine Dispenser System.

The dispensers have three primary components: they must be installed near communal water sources; following installation there must be community education; and the chlorine used to purify the water must be delivered in a reliable and sustainable manner. Hand, who refers to the professor as “a champion of our dispensers program,” says that so far 400 of IPA’s cost-effective and easily maintainable water treatment systems have been installed throughout Haiti.

Marcel Jean, the community coordinator for the Port-au-Prince-based non-profit, People in Need Partnership, says that although he doesn’t know a lot about economic theory, he is, nevertheless, grateful to anyone who advocates a cause that is so crucial to the well-being of his countrymen.

In 2010, Jean was put in charge of creating a community water system in Cité Soleil—the capital city’s poorest slum-—for his organization, which works to alleviate extreme poverty in Haiti by connecting Haitian women and children with global partners, who not only help them financially but also connect to them on a personal level. Like IPA, People in Need Partnership chose the chlorination method of water purification. Because the organization was working with a budget of $1,000, Jean and two of the neighborhood bricklayers constructed a model by themselves that consisted of a 125-gallon plastic tank that had a mesh filter and a valve for dispensing chlorine. They installed the system in the enclosed backyard of Lalane Marie-ange, one of the women being helped by the organization’s partnership program.

Jean admits that the water system wasn’t a perfect solution, but that it was “better than nothing.” The dispenser, which was filled with water by a commercial delivery truck every two weeks, was able to accommodate Marie-ange and 15 of her neighbors. Things went smoothly for several months, but then Marie-ange broke her leg and sold the tank for $300 in order to have her limb set at a local clinic by a man who may or may not have been a real doctor.

A year-and-a half later, Jean decides to pay another visit to her to see how she is doing. Marie-ange, who has almond-shaped eyes that tilt downward, giving her a perennially sleepy look, greets Jean at the front door of her tin hut with a hug, and a small, sad smile.

Her substantial legs—one of which bows dramatically to the right—taper to dainty feet clad in metallic mauve flip-flops. The polish on her toenails matches the color of her sandals perfectly. Jean’s eyes are large somber pools as he scrutinizes her crooked leg. He utters a cluck of dismay. “That is not right. I don’t think that man was a doctor. I think he was a toy.”

Marie-ange explains that she still experiences pain and has problems walking with the leg that had been injured. She also says that she is sorry that her neighbors no longer have free, “good” water available to them. When asked about the importance of having pure water, she raises her hands in the air and sings out: “For life, for life! What else is there?”

It may be a while before Marie-ange and her neighbors have ready and affordable access to pure water. The National Bureau of Water and Sanitation of Haiti’s (DINEPA) 2012 report, which documents progress in drinking water and sanitation, reveals that water sanitation in Haiti has improved by 24 percent in urban areas and 10 percent in rural ones. In spite of these lackluster figures, Harold Florentino Latortue PhD, an advisor to President Michel Martelly and director at BAIN Consulting, remains cautiously optimistic: “We’re on the right path, but we need to work more extensively to rehabilitate the water system so that it can be more efficient and sustainable.”

Jean and Marie-ange have stepped outside and started walking along the bank of a canal that is overrun with hundreds of smashed cans, plastic bottles, and empty cardboard containers. An occasional stray shoe dots the heaps of debris. A wild boar is wading in the murky water.

A couple of yards away, someone has turned on a faucet that is attached to a thin, rusty pipe. Jean goes over to inspect. “Look at that!” he exclaims, as he watches water gush into the five-gallon plastic bucket that has been placed below. “Look at those dirt pieces.”

Six-year-old Celian is standing in front of the bucket, mesmerized by the flow of water. She is draped in a ripped “Surfer girls rule” t-shirt, and her head is adorned with cornrows, one of which hangs over her forehead at a 75-degree angle to the ground. Eight-year old Sophie, standing beside Celian, has a belly that juts out several inches past her bony ribcage. Her shoulders curve forward with exhaustion, as if the weight of her abdomen is too much to bear. A teenage boy, hovering nearby in a crisp white oxford shirt that has somehow managed to defy the humidity, explains that she has “maladies” from drinking “bad” water.

On an adjacent patch of paved road, a young boy peddles past on a bicycle. He rings the bell on its handlebars in three-second increments. The bell’s rhythmic clangs synch with the boar’s snorts. Together, they harmonize with the melody of the gurgling water, and form a beautiful, cacophonous symphony that flows through the heavy, gray air.

Winter 2013Volume XVI, Number 1

Linda Khachadurianis a medical and educational editor and founder of the non-profit, Charitable Confections, which raises awareness and funds for educational programs in third-world countries. She is working on a book about unsung humanitarians, entitled The Extraordinary Doings of an Ordinary Man. 

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