For people living in certain villages and small towns in Haiti, few things are more reassuring than the bitter, gripping taste of chlorine in a glass of water. Indeed, the more their drinking water tastes like a swimming pool, the better.
"They used to not like the chlorine taste," says Molly Greene, founder and chairman of Charleston-based Water Missions International, which installs filtration systems in countries including Haiti. "Now, after the [cholera] epidemic, that's all they want."
The island nation has been pummeled by a one-two punch in the last year and a half. First, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake in January 2010 rocked the cities and reduced entire communities to rubble. Then, in October 2010, cholera broke out in Haiti's rural Artibonite valley, spread largely through contaminated drinking water. A well-maintained filtration system and a shock of chlorine are enough to sanitize the water, but in a country hobbled by a crumbling infrastructure and an inefficient, sometimes-corrupt government, many communities are still drinking straight from contaminated groundwater sources — and putting themselves at risk for the dehydrating combination of vomiting and diarrhea that comes with cholera.
Scientists have not been able to pin down the outbreak's source with certainty, but aid workers might be to blame. Nepalese soldiers arrived in Artibonite in early October 2010 to set up relief efforts, and a report from the Centers for Disease Control noted that cholera also cropped up in Nepal's capital city of Kathmandu shortly after it broke out in Haiti. A pipe from the Nepalese camp was pumping raw sewage into the Artibonite River, which villagers downstream used for cooking and drinking.
On Oct. 19, 2010, government agencies received notice of three children in nearby Bocozel who had died of watery diarrhea at school. Within 48 hours, there were reports of 3,020 cholera cases and 129 deaths — and those were only the reported cases. A July study put the death toll at 5,899. Even before the cholera outbreak, Haitians were often drinking from streams contaminated by animal waste and bacteria.
While Haitians were dying because of a lack of clean water, a 40-foot shipping container full of filtration systems from WMI was sitting unused in a Haitian customs building. The container had left Charleston Feb. 14 this year, and it took until July 4 to get it through customs. A possible reason? "We don't do payoffs," says Greene. The decision not to bribe customs officials is one of the brutal trade-offs of aid work: If WMI had not taken a stand against corruption, which causes long-term systemic problems a country, those filtration systems could have been installed and saving lives by March.
Patrick Haughney, director of international programs at WMI, was on the ground in Haiti four days after the earthquake, helping to set up filter systems in camps of dislocated people. He says he has never come across a situation where an official asked him outright to pay a bribe, but, he says, "I've had times where I've felt maybe things would be faster if we did."
Before the earthquake, WMI had installed about 20 systems in Haiti, each one pumping out enough clean water for 3,000 people per day. Since the earthquake, the Christian faith-based nonprofit has installed about 200 more, most running on solar or generator power due to the lack of a reliable power grid. Worldwide, about 80 percent of WMI's filtration systems are paid for by donors. The other 20 percent are bought by nonprofit organizations. In Haiti, during the emergency response to the earthquake, the split was closer to 70/30.
Some larger aid agencies, like Food for the Poor, hire a full-time customs worker to make sure supplies get into the country quickly, but WMI has no such person. Haughney has applied for non-governmental organization status with the Haitian government, which would give WMI some legal standing in Haiti and allow them to ship in containers duty-free, but even that has been slow going. The application was submitted in April 2010.
"What certainly is apparent is government inefficiency," Haughney says. "The pace of getting things done is a problem."
Hands and Feet is an orphanage in the southern coastal town of Jacmel that purchased one of WMI's filtration systems. Installed at the end of a long driveway, that system quietly cleans water drafted from a well at a rate of three gallons per minute. The water is pumped into six 500-gallon containers on the roofs of the compound, which provide clean drinking and washing water via gravity-powered plumbing for 62 kids as well as staff and visiting missions.
The gregarious director of Hands and Feet, Dr. Ken Pierce, moved his family to Jacmel from Hawaii after encountering the devastation in Haiti as an emergency surgeon. He realizes the water system at Hands and Feet is running at nowhere near its full capacity, and he is in the process of building a 180,000-gallon cistern that will store clean water with the ultimate goal of opening up the supply to the surrounding community within a one-mile radius. The machine, which supplies water to about 100 people a day inside the compound, could feasibly supply 3,000 a day.
As of the writing of this story, Hands and Feet has laid some pipe outside the compound and installed a 600-gallon tank., Pierce estimates the system serves 1,200 people a day.
WMI places no conditions on people who use their filtration systems, other than to encourage them to distribute the water as widely and cheaply as possible. Since WMI is a nonprofit organization, when it does sell a system, it sells it at cost and turns no profit. The average price tag, including the cost of training people to maintain a filter and educating the community on basic sanitation, is about $25,000.
A few miles away from Hands and Feet is Hosana Baptist Theology School, which was chosen by WMI for a community installation. It's a typical example of how WMI spends its money. In addition to installing the system, they trained locals to use it and helped foster a local distribution network.
The machine is in a building that has large windows facing into the courtyard of the school and out into an alley. Internally, the students and faculty get free use of the water for school use. Four spigots along the top of each window allow easy pouring into containers people bring from home.
On the outside, a steady stream of customers line up to pay 10 gourdes (about 25 cents) for five gallons of water. It's carried off on motorcycles, by hand, or balanced on people's heads. Carrying heavy items on your head is an efficient way of managing a load over long distances and is a common sight in Haiti.
The water is sold for about one-third of the price of local vendors. School representatives are quick to point out that they don't have any problems from more commercially oriented sellers. Many locals still use unfiltered (and dangerous) water from local community supplies or the limited municipal projects.
One year and seven months after the earthquake, progress still comes piecemeal in Haiti. And it's not for a lack of trying; aid streamed into the country in 2010. WMI logged 12,000 volunteer hours in the first two months alone — both on the ground installing systems in Haiti and at the Charleston headquarters assembling water systems.
Part of the difficulty has to do with the logistical nightmare of getting supplies into the country. "It's very hard to plan, because one shipment could take five months and another could take three weeks," Haughney says. Another problem is a lack of central coordination between all the disparate aid groups. Some groups work together under the UNICEF umbrella, but since WMI receives no UNICEF funding, they are not a part of that group. Ideally, the Haitian government would step in to coordinate, but many of its buildings are still severely damaged, and many government employees perished in the earthquake.
Since the earthquake, WMI has received $15.8 million in donations, of which $5.3 million were designated for Haiti. While there are still more Haitian communities in need than WMI has the money to help, leaders in the organization have decided not to spend all of the Haiti money at once, saving about half a million dollars for long-term projects. A goal at WMI is to shift the efforts in Haiti from relief mode to development mode, but for now, everything still looks like an emergency.
Sometimes the emergency looks like a scene just 20 yards from Hands and Feet, three days before they installed a free public spigot: Someone has broken the PVC cap off of an unfinished municipal pipeline carrying contaminated groundwater. Adults, who know the water isn't drinkable, are filling washbasins with it for laundry, but a boy of maybe 10 years old doesn't know any better. He walks up, bored and thirsty, and puts his mouth on the pipe to drink.