Haiti seeks a way to make clean water sustainable

David Brown / The Washington Post

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.

Rural Haitians have always been pretty much on their own when it comes to water, getting it where they can and carrying it home in five-gallon buckets balanced on the head.

In many places, local water utilities make the task a bit easier, piping water from streams, springs and wells to public pumps and spigots. Sometimes they disinfect it and sometimes they don’t. Often built by foreign charities, the systems are managed by “water committees” comprised of local volunteers.

Global focus, wasted money

This arrangement isn’t unique to Haiti. It’s common throughout the developing world, where safe water has been a focus of investment for decades.

Between 1990 and 2008, $50 billion was spent globally on rural water projects, according to one estimate. However, development experts now conclude that much of the investment was a waste.

There are many reasons.

Volunteers left to run the system after the outsiders who construct leave rarely have sufficient expertise. The cost of running a water system for 10 years is three times the cost of installing it. User fees, however, are rarely high enough or collected consistently enough to support ongoing operations.

“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 now has a new water and sanitation agency, Dinepa, that is not only building large projects but also experimenting with ways to bring professionalism to small ones.

The water systems 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 two men do not own the infrastructure, but their pay would derive, in part, from a percentage of the revenue.

“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.”

Castel, Narol and their fellow “professional water operators” one day could be rich. At the moment, however, they are basically working for free and have the anxiety of people running Silicon Valley start-ups.

Today, 69 percent of Haiti’s population gets drinking water from an “improved source,” which means it is chlorinated and delivered through pipes or a capped well that is protected from contamination. In rural districts, only 51 percent of people have improved water — a rate that has gone up only one percentage point since 2000. Worldwide, 81 percent of rural residents have improved water.

Haiti has the raw materials to deliver water to its people. There’s lots of rainfall, and steep terrain to drive it by gravity to places where people live. But cleanliness is another issue.

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 July, there were 2,104 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 was deteriorated from poor maintenance and dozens of illegal connections.

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

Convenience

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 a while 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.

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 come up with 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 couldn’t accommodate them. The outage caused severe cash-flow problems and he doesn’t 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’s spending money to run a gas generator to drive the pump. Even though a surge protector has been installed and inspected, he hasn’t worked up the courage to reconnect to the power grid.

One more blown pump and he is done for.

Marc Antoine Castel, standing, who runs the water utility in Cavaillon, Haiti, conducts an inspection in May to measure the flow of water to the spigot outside the house where Cheslene Desobert, her son Djovani and the four other family members live. Each household gets a minimum of 793 gallons of water a month and pays about $3.60.