I’ve been thinking a lot about the water problem in Haiti and specifically water filters, mostly because I’ve had several mission teamers ask me my opinion about them lately. And I wanted to address the issue here on my blog because Haiti’s water problem is something that I care about deeply and actually have some experience with here. I’ve researched multiple different approaches to addressing getting my community better water because if you ask anyone here what the number 1 problem in their community is, they will say “water”. In Living Media we did several projects addressing the issue and they continue to do so, including water filters. However, from my experience, I’ve come to have many opinions on this issue and I wanted to do so here by pointing out these 6 myths about water in Haiti. Before going into them, I do want to point out that these come from my very specific experience within my community. You could ask 10 different people from around the country their opinions on the water problem, and they would all give you different responses because that’s how diverse this problem is in this little land. That is exactly why I think anyone wanting to come to the country to work on helping with the problem needs to realize that it is so diverse and no solution is a one size fits all sort of silver bullet.
1) Clean Drinking Water is the #1 problem in Haiti.
It is important for us to differentiate between water potability and water accessibility, because both are large problems in Haiti but both cannot be addressed in the same way. Water filters only address the potability issue which does affect many people in the country, but for the rest, accessibility is the much greater issue. And yet, water filters are the much more common form of intervention provided while people continue to ignore the larger picture of water access. Much of this attitude from outside helpers comes from the knowledge of the cholera epidemic that Haiti has struggled with, which is a very real problem, but anymore it is reckless to paint the whole country with the “cholera victim” brush and think that giving out filters is going to solve the problem. We need to be aware of the specific causes of the epidemic and the way that it spreads as well as the current status of the illness before intervening. Cholera comes from unclean drinking water, but for the people of my community and many others in today’s Haiti, it’s much more important that they can find water in the first place than it is that they have a filter for that water. Filters are no good if you don’t have any water to put in them.
2) All water in Haiti is contaminated and unsafe to drink.
Once again, hearing about a problem that affects Haiti and then applying it to the entire population, is unfair to those individuals that we as foreigners hope to help when we arrive here. We need to do our research first, especially when it comes to water, because everyone in this country gets their water from different sources. Before we think of giving filters out in Haiti, or any other sort of water project, we first need to take the responsibility to do the research on our particular location of work to see whether or not the sources where they get their water locally are, indeed, unsafe or not. In many places the problem is not that their sources are unsafe, but that they are too few and far between. They are too inaccessible. In Mizak, for example, the population is around 20,000 people. For all of those 20,000 people, there are only 7 natural water sources and a handful of wells. Of the natural sources, at this exact time after months of no rain, only 3 of them haven’t dried up. Most of the wells that have been drilled are on school grounds or private property. The ones on school grounds can only be open when school’s not in session and the ones on private grounds are used as tools to exploit the population to make money off of their need for water by making them pay in order to use them. So for these 20,000 people who are all spread throughout a large physical area of the mountains, some more than an hour’s walk away from one of these available sources, which will probably be dry, or closed, or overrun with people when they get there, what are they supposed to do with the fancy filter that they just received from a bunch of foreigners? Probably use it for storage.
3) A high tech filter is cost effective.
If the water that you can get from your local water source is already potable, then the 5 gallon bucket that the filter is attached to becomes more valuable then the filter itself. Some of these filters that I’ve seen teams bring in cost $60 or more but most of them get handed out to families who have never actually had major health problems from unclean drinking water so they just keep using the bucket as a vessel to carry and store the water from the source without ever filtering it. So if we’re able to find out that local sources, including wells, are already potable, then we really need to do the math before handing out expensive filters to see if that money wouldn’t have been better spent either drilling more wells or rehabilitating natural sources. In Mizak, this week alone, I know that over 140 filters have been handed out to families in the area by two different teams. Now, I do not know the exact type of filter that those teams handed out, but if they were costing $60 apiece, then that’s $8400 just on filters this week. In my community, a local water source can be rehabilitated for $4,000 – $6,000 and a well can be drilled for $6,000 to $8,000. And a bucket can be purchased for $2.50. Those estimates would vary depending on different locations in the country. Wells are cheaper to drill at lower elevations and nearer to population centers and the cost of rehabilitating a natural source depends largely on its proximity to a road. But the math suggests, that in almost any case, its worth at least considering using those funds on longer term sustainable efforts to bring greater access to water than just handing out filters. But again, this requires prior research on your specific area of involvement to determine which is more important.
4) Local technologies are not available to treat water.
When we decided to distribute water filters while I was working for Living Media we looked at a lot of different options but ended up going with a local option called Filter Pure which is made locally, a relatively simple technology that requires minimal maintenance, employs local Haitians to fabricate them, and has been proven just as effective as imported filters at removing contaminants from the water. It was also about $27 only for each filter. So, although it was still debatable about the real need for filters in our specific area, at least we were supporting a group that employed Haitians and were giving out as many buckets as possible for the money. And most of those filters still got used at least at first, because they were simple to use and still effective. They didn’t require any tricky maintenance with new tools. Even though most teams that bring in their foreign filters train the recipients on how to keep them in good condition, I know that the majority of them still never try to change the carbon, flush out the tubes, or any of the other kinds of things they’re supposed to do. They abandon the filter long before it ever needs upkeep. But if it is something made locally, with local materials and technologies, by a company full of people that speak their language that they can ask questions to if they have problems, then they trust it a lot more from the start.
5) All Haitians need water filters.
If not for #2, this might have been true about 4 years ago before the cholera outbreak. But since then, there has been such a flood of filters into this country by different organizations that it’s hard to find a household that doesn’t have one, if not several, in their house already. This might not be true in some more remote areas that are less touched by NGO activity, but I know in my area it’s definitely true. One of the teams that I recently spoke to who was handing out filters remarked how many homes they noticed that already had filters in them from other groups. When we did our distribution with Living Media, we at least consulted with the other stable organization in the area that we knew had done filters to make sure not to double up on the list that they’d already given to, but that still didn’t account for all of the orgs that have swooped through with filters and given them out without consulting anyone else. Buckets are a valuable commodity here so whenever someone gets a chance to get their hand on one, they’ll take it, regardless of whether or not they already have 7 filters at home that they’ve never used. The family that I eat with here in Haiti has at least 3 filters themselves, none of which have ever been used for more than a week or two at a time. But none of us ever get sick when we don’t use the filters, so why would we waste our time with them?
6) Wells are for Africa, filters are for Haiti.
Although I’ve never heard anyone say this outright, I get the unusual sense that a lot of mission agencies hold on to this strange idea. I’ve met plenty of groups here in Haiti who have told me about the wells that they’ve drilled in Africa before and now in Haiti are doing something completely different, not even considering wells as an option. It’s just part of their water resume. Part of this comes from the faulty assumption that wells can’t be drilled in more mountainous areas and part of it still comes from the whole stereotypes derived from a defining cholera epidemic. And I’ll admit that I used to not be a well fan myself until I started living the benefits of two wells drilled nearby my home here in Haiti by UNICEF and Save the Children. I had bought into the myth of them being too expensive and too difficult to drill in the mountains until I came in contact with the local company that was responsible for drilling these two and heard the nuts and bolts of what it takes, realizing that they really are quite practical and efficient. They have even been tested for potability and, although it seems to vary slightly throughout the year, presumably from the level of water based on rainfall, they have been shown to be safe for drinking. I’ve been drinking the water and never had problems as well as enjoying the well’s accessibility for bathing and other uses when my cistern is dry. I, however, am fortunate that these two wells were both dug very nearby my house, cutting down the distance we’d have to go for water greatly. There are still thousands of people in our area who haven’t been as lucky and still are hours away from a source.
Okay, so this has been a long post, but I want to wrap it up with a few suggestions for anyone thinking about providing water filters to a community in Haiti:
- Do the research ahead of time to determine whether or not local sources are actually unsafe.
- Do the math to see if for the cost of filters it wouldn’t be better to either rehabilitate a natural source or drill a well with a local drilling company.
- If you do decide to give filters, please consider local companies and filters made with local methods and technologies.
- If you give filters, survey the population first to determine who hasn’t received filters before and what type have been given.
- No matter what, sit with community leaders to discuss long term sustainable solutions to their water problems in their community.
I know that this requires more work than just dropping off some filters and then patting ourselves on the back and going home. Sorry but we all know that the easy way isn’t always the best way. I do believe that it is important for groups to get involved with the water issue here in Haiti and want to encourage it through informed intervention. No matter what issue we are trying to address, generalized aid is always dangerous and often leads to wasted resources and disappointed communities. Let’s be committed to smarter involvement. Life really can be more beautiful with clean water and better access to water. But it can just as easily turn ugly with reckless charity. Let’s work towards the prior.