By Jim Bland
When I announced my Haitian Caribbean vacation it was to some odd looks and questioning responses from friends; probably with some good reason on their part. At the time of my prospective trip the State Department had issued a travel warning for Haiti. The State Department really needs to issue a travel warning for the south side of Chicago which is eminently more dangerous than Haiti.
My interest in Haiti was raised when I read powerful accounts of the 2010 earthquake by Northwestern journalism graduate Jonathon Katz. His accounts, as you might imagine, were horrific. “The Big Truck that Went by: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left behind Disaster”, is a vivid account of the earthquake itself and a palpable indictment of the relief processes that followed. Katz weaves together a story of unimaginable sorrow, and as an investigative reporter, details how good intentions can go sadly wrong. Cholera, which had never been present in Haiti, was brought in by UN workers from Nepal. Free rice from the U.S. helped to kill a self- sufficient rice market that already existed in Haiti. Katz was, at the time of the earthquake, the only full-time American journalist in Haiti. Toward the end of his narrative, Katz acknowledges the he got Post Traumatic Stress Disorder related to his experiences.
The other strand that wove together my interest to visiti Haiti was conversations with a hydro-geologist that was working with nongovernmental charity organizations (NGO’s) to find and provide potable water for Haitians. James Adamson of NorthWater Consulting, along with V3 Companies and Haiti Outreach, has been mapping groundwater deposits in the Central Plateau of Haiti. Some of their effort involves sophisticated geologic profiling and digital mapping. Their work has gotten well deserved recognition from the engineering community. Much more to the point however, thousands of Haitians will potentially have potable water as a consequence of their partnership with the Haitian government and with selected NGOs. One of the NGOs that Jim’s firm works with, Haiti Outreach, says that they have provided potable water for over 180,000 people.
Haiti Outreach has been in Haiti since the early 90’s which is well before the earthquake. It must be commented that if Minnesota is the land of 10,000 lakes; Haiti is the land of 10,000 NGOS. The work of Haiti Outreach is exemplary. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. They rank 176 out of 178 countries on a sustainability scale developed by the Yale School of Forestry. At one point in time, 60% of Haiti was covered by highly valuable forests and was regarded as the “Pearl of the Antilles”. Much of Haiti’s forests are gone as a consequence of slash and burn agriculture, the taking of the lumber by the U.S. and Europe, and the use of woody vegetation as fuel. Haiti is also very large. It occupies one- third of the island of Hispaniola (the Dominican Republic occupies the other 2/3) and is about the size of Maryland. Modern infrastructure is either nonexistent or compromised. A piping system does not exist in the Central Plateau for moving water from one place to another, except in rare towns. Pignon, the community that I visited had just gotten electricity about six months ago. During the evening the electrical grid worked on an intermittent basis. In the industrialized world, water is something that many people take for granted. No one in Haiti takes water for granted. It is a country of impossible contrasts…..cell phones are everywhere and trucks with high tech sound equipment blast kompa (a variety of Haitian music) and other contemporary music to Haitian festivals.
Haiti Outreach works out of Pignon, and they have a complex which includes offices, garages, repair facilities (which are critically important), fuel storage facilities, and dormitories/hotel accommodations for visitors such as myself. Electricity for the complex is provided by solar panels. They also have a fleet of drilling rigs, heavy duty drilling trucks, and modified pick-up trucks. Visitors travel via the pick-up trucks between the Haiti Outreach complex to prospective well sites and well sites under construction. Ten or more visitors pack the back of the pick-up truck along with wheel barrows, spare tires, and digging equipment. Roads to Pignon remain “under construction”. Back country roads resemble mule trails ….which in fact they are. The best description of riding in the back of these pick-ups came from a fellow traveler: “shaken baby syndrome”. Roads have potholes the size of pick-up trucks and rain can bring travel to a halt as sections are eroded away or as trucks become “mired in the ooze”.
While modern infrastructure is not present in the Central Plateau, Haiti Outreach has worked with local Haitians to create institutional structure for each and every well. The most impressive element of Haiti Outreach is the integration of their programs into local social fabric and their understanding of Haitian culture. Well water is not “free”. The local community has to solicit Haiti Outreach for a new well. The solicitation has to include five representatives and at least three of the representatives must be women. In order to qualify for a well, the local community must put together a committee to oversee the process, work with and be trained by Haiti Outreach field workers (“animators”). Local residents have to pay for their water with fees which are in-line with Haitian economic profiles and go for the maintenance of the well. Local water management committees include a president, a treasurer, a secretary etc. Detailed records are kept which are exchanged with Haiti Outreach and regional governmental agencies. Typically wells serve about 350 people. Well houses are locked, secured and are open at specific hours so that usage can be monitored. In other words, “it’s a big deal” and the community treats it as such.
Construction of the well apron and the well house is done by locals, with some limited outside support, and masons that are hired by Haiti Outreach. While I was there we helped in the construction of two wells. The drilling of the well is undertaken by Haiti Outreach also. The most important part of the construction is local participation. The active participation in both the construction and maintenance means that the local community “has skin in the game”.
For communities without a secured well (still the majority in the Central Plateau) water sources include hillside springs, unmonitored wells, or worse yet regional streams. One of the best experiences for myself was getting water from a regional stream (1.5 miles with a five gallon bucket in hilly terrain). Haitian women put a five gallon bucket on their head (about 45 lbs. when filled) and walk incredible distances to secure water.
Some of the observations of my “vacation visit” include:
- Haiti is still beautiful and even without the endemic forest has an elaborate Caribbean flora
- In a country that is “dirt” poor, the Easter ceremony was filled with people and children in their best attire: the Easter ceremony at Notre Dame was lovely and the music grand
- Domestic animals and feral dogs roam free (not such a neat thing). Donkeys, mules, guinea hens, turkeys, chickens, goats, cattle roam free or have limited restraints
- Haitian “Prestige” beer hits the spot after a hard day of well construction
- People walk miles to come to markets which are a riot of local goods
- Health care is still a critical issue
- All throughout the country fences are created out of a euphorbia (read cactus-like) plant that has substantial thorns and a toxic sap
- Inauguration of a well involves speeches, prayers, music and dancing.