Haiti and the Struggle for Water (Frontline)

  • Posted on: 23 March 2008
  • By: Bryan Schaaf
Blog Tags 2 Terms: 

In light of World Water Day, I wanted to highlight a Frontline multimedia piece on water scarcity in Haiti by Shoshana Guy.  Though not recent (it was produced after Tropical Storm Jean) the key issues are as valid now as then.  Haitians continue to struggle both from having too little water to drink and from having more water than cab be absorbed after seasonal rains.  The result is flooding/mud slides such as those which decimated Gonaives.


The first part of this piece focuses on communities.  What community can be competitive when its hardest workers, women and girls, must spend hours collecting water each day?  Water can be a unifying force - regardless of class, gender, or religion everyone wants access to water.  The reporter examines a community on the outskirts of Port au Prince attempting to rebuild a dilapidated water system.  If the government cannot rehabiliate water systems, communities will try to pick up the slack. 



The second part focuses on the impact of water scarcity on families.  In La Saline, one of the poorest slums in Port au Prince, people must pay for clean water.  A quarter may not sound like a lot, but when you are living on less than a dollar a day it is a burden.  Communities which have access to water systems maintained by CAMEP, the government supplier, can buy water for three cents or less.  Perversely, it is the poorest who are furthest from CAMEP outlets and must pay the most for water.   La Saline also lacks sanitation - the sewers are open and the smell is pervasive.  For the purposes of promoting communty health, whether urban or rural, we must address sanitation when we consider solutions to water scarcity.  The UN estimates every dollar spent on sanitation would save nine as a result of economic growth and reduced hospital fees.  You can read more here.



The third part focuses on water tankering - a business which, in the absence of a widespread and cohesive water network, thrives in Haiti's largest city.   Having begun in the 1970s it is not a new practice.  However, tankering has become incresingly more common - so much so that profits are decreasing as competition increases.  One wonders how the tankering companies would react if CAMEP were able to expand its operations significantly, cutting further into profits.   Haiti has no water ministry through the impact of water scarcity ripples across government agencies such as education and health.   As a representative of CAMEP notes, there are so many stakeholders involved and yet noone is in control.  CAMEP is responsible for water provision in Port au Prince while the Service Nationale d'Eau Potable (SNEP) has nationwide responsibilities.  Neither is meeting their responsibilities fully.  According to the piece, SNEP meets the needs of only 16-24% of the population.


Some favor privatization noting that many are already paying for their water in some shape or form.  Privitazation has worked well in some countries and been a disaster in others.  It remains to be seen which route the Preval administation will take.   Regardless, the creation of an empowered Ministry of Water and Enviornment with the leadership, resources, and mandate to make a difference would be a step in the right direction.



The fourth part focuses on the entrepeunerial water sellers, often children.  Ride along any major road in Port au Prince, and you will hear them yell "sache dlo! sache dlo!" (water packet, water packet!).  One pays several gourdes for a plastic bag of clean water, tears it open with one's teeth, and drinks.  A day of work selling bags of water can yield about two dollars  a day.   At the time of this article, there were eight companies producing the water packets.  Women also sell water by the glass from buckets that they carry on their heads.  This is the cheaper option though the cleanliness of the water is in question.  



Not having a city wide garbage managament system, the discarded plastic packets are a major environmental issue.  They either are washed into the ocean with the rains or clog up drainage canals along with plastic soft drink bottles - perfect for mosquitos to reproduce.   As the article notes, a person's immediate needs will always trump environmental concerns.  One of the water sellers states, "I get money for my feeding, for water, for clothing - if I find something better, then I will do that but this is a good business."


The fifth part focuses on the health impact of inadequate water and sanitation.  Worldwide and in Haiti, water borne disease is one of the leading causes of death for children under five.  In the health care facilities, when even health care providers dont have access to water, infections will be the inevitable result.   The article explores how the lack of water/sanitation negatively affects the quality of health care services at the Justinien Hospital in Cap Haitian and explains what Konbit Sante is doing to improve the situation.  Priority number one for the hospital is clean water.  As the staff of the hospital put it, "water is life."



The article concludes by touching on Vodoun.  In both Christianity and Vodoun alike, water is sacred.  Water heals, replenishes, washes away sins, and fortifies.   Vodoun and Catholicism have learned to co-exist.  I wish the same for Vodouisants and Protestants.  Development challenges such as environmental degradation and the resulting water scarcity will require unity.  As the flag states so prominently, "Unity is Strength."  We all need water, we could all work together.  


This piece raises key questions, offers up some solutions, and couples commentary with excellent photography.  You can find an interview with Shoshana about this piece in the Washington Post as well.  World Water Day has come and gone, but much work remains in ensuring that all of Haiti's citizens, and especially the poorest of the poor, have affordable access to safe drinking water through sustainable water systems that communities have ownership over.   Welcome your thoughts on this piece.



Add new comment

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.