The Water School
Two UBC alumni travelled to Haiti last summer to see how a simple method for removing contaminants from water is being adopted and promoted by locals.
Seated on a plane in Miami bound for Port-au-Prince, I’m watching teams of people walk down the aisle, each wearing their group’s distinct T-shirt. The logos include: Habitat for Humanity, Rotary International, Mission Possible, Running Water for Haiti, Firefighters for Christ, and Change the World. The latter shirt is worn by members of a large Texas church, and on the back it has a list of the year’s missions with dates like a concert shirt. I point it out to my companion, Bradley Pierik, who recently defended his master’s thesis at UBC in chemical engineering. He nods. “Notice it doesn’t specify, ‘Change for the better.’”
Pierik is very aware of the dubious track record of international aid. He studies water treatment, and he’s here in his role as research scientist for The Water School. The Canadian non-profit organization promotes a method so simple it’s hard to believe: fill a plastic pop bottle with water and leave it on a hard surface in the sun for one day. It’s called solar disinfection, or SODIS: the sun’s ultraviolet rays kill micro-organisms in contaminated water and make it safe to drink.
In the years before the January 2010 earthquake, the country had become “a veritable ‘Republic of NGOs,’ home to a proliferation of goodwill that did little or nothing to strengthen the public sector.”
My dad is a good friend of Robert Dell, one of the Water School’s founders. Dell introduced me to Pierik and suggested I go along with him to Haiti to learn about the work. From the first time I heard about The Water School, I was fascinated. Anyone who has been to a developing country knows about the devastating impacts of waterborne disease. A solution using available resources, sunlight and plastic bottles, seems brilliantly easy. But development work, I quickly learn, is not.
American doctor and anthropologist Paul Farmer has written extensively about the devastating consequences of foreign intervention and aid to Haiti. In the years before the January 2010 earthquake, the country had become “a veritable ‘Republic of NGOs,’ home to a proliferation of goodwill that did little or nothing to strengthen the public sector.” As the armies of idealistic youth and earnest church members file past, I’m reminded of his warning in Haiti After the Earthquake, that the generous outpouring of help risks being squandered by that same dysfunctional system of humanitarian aid.
Enoch Firmin, the six-foot-five director of The Water School in Haiti, meets us at the airport in Port-au-Prince. If anyone scares you, he tells us, just smile, and his gentle manner demonstrates that theory. He translates for us and explains some of the complexities of Haitian culture. Many of his friends moved to the US, but he chose to stay here, and he has a tough-love attitude towards his struggling country. People living in the tent cities of Port-au-Prince, he says, are staying there for the free food and services they get from foreign organizations. Even out in remote places, the ever-changing parade of aid workers has made for uneasy relations. “Development work here can’t be done by white people,” he tells us, “because the Haitians think ‘ah, there’s money there.’”
We take a flight to Firmin’s home in the northern city of Cap Haitien, and then head east in a Pathfinder to visit the village of Mombin Crochu, where The Water School has done extensive work. The road starts out promising as a flat paved highway, becomes gravel, and then as we begin the ascent up the mountain, tire tracks on muddy soil. It’s enclosed on both sides almost the entire way by a lattice-like plant, a relative of the pineapple. We cross bridges flowing with knee-deep water, follow switchbacks, and once creep along the edge of a sharp drop-off while a loaded bus brushes our rear-view mirror on the inside.
We only stop to discuss the wisest route through stretches of mud, and the 67-km trip takes almost four hours. “We’re Haiti per cent of the way there,” we assure each other, continuing a riff that began on our first day when we ate a pizza drizzled with Cheez Whiz. You can only be Haiti per cent sure of anything here, especially customer service.
“Is my bag on the plane?” we heard a woman ask the domestic airline worker.
“Yes,” he said.
“Do you promise?” she asked.
Along the way, small groups of women walk toward the market in town, with bulging bags balanced on their heads or strapped to a donkey: mangoes, sticks, peanuts, lentils. At times there are magnificent views of green hillsides marked with small farms. The homes in Mombin Crochu (Crooked Tree) are just off a main pathway, and children run en masse from one home to another. Most people here subsist on small farming operations, the kind of living that consistently ranks this country’s economy as the poorest in the Western hemisphere. But although there are problems – teenage pregnancy, inadequate health care, the treacherous road to Cap Haitien – this village doesn’t have the desperation evident in the slums of Port-au-Prince. People whose children have moved to New York City or Miami prefer to stay here. One man laughs when I ask if there is crime. “Do you see any policemen?” he asks.
We visit several homes, small thatched huts kept so meticulously that the soil around them is swept. Children are often responsible for the family’s drinking water, and they fill up containers at nearby wells and lay them in the ridges of corrugated steel roofs or on flat tables.
One woman with tight short braids brings stools out of her home for us, and picks up a small girl who is crying at the sight of the intruders. “I know the importance of clean water,” she explains, gesturing to an older girl whose left eye is unfocused. She thinks her daughter had typhoid fever as a baby, and it affected her vision.
Now, she teaches women to use SODIS as part of a prenatal course.
Holding the small child who is still clutching her blouse, she describes an essentially modern program, from conception to child care, including nutrition and maternal health. There used to be deaths in childbirth, but now women are encouraged to go to clinics. Sometimes, women don’t want to do the proper thing because of certain voodoo beliefs. “So we deal with that,” she says. In a few short minutes she has us spellbound. “Do you deliver babies?” Pierik asks, and she emphatically shakes her head, because she doesn’t have the proper qualifications. “But I can,” she adds, with a self-assured wave of her hand that tells us why she, and not an outsider, should be doing development work here.
It’s so simple it’s hard to believe: fill a plastic pop bottle with water and leave it on a hard surface in the sun for one day.
The Water School was founded by Robert Dell, a retired water chemist who ran Dell Tech Laboratories, a chemical regulatory compliance company, for 21 years. After a trip to Kenya in 2001, he began researching water treatment technologies that could be useful in Africa, and came across solar disinfection. The method had been studied extensively by a Swiss aquatic research institute (EAWAG), and after his own field work in Uganda, Dell made some further simplifications to the process. The Water School works in five countries, and maintains a “train-the-trainer” approach, so that teachers or other leaders promote the method to their own community.
As an undergraduate engineering student at University of Toronto, Pierik spent a summer in Africa working for a church organization and digging wells. The next year, while working at a large Canadian water treatment company, he met Dell, who later asked him to work for the Water School. He completed a thesis project on various aspects of the science of solar disinfection. At UBC he built a sunlight simulator and wrote his master’s thesis on the effectiveness of using plastic bags instead of bottles. The idea proved successful, and several other organizations that promote SODIS are now looking at using bags for treating water in disaster relief because they are easy to transport.
Pierik has studied many methods of disinfection, and often finds that great ideas work well in the lab but not in practice. His favourite part of his job is traveling to places like this and meeting the people who use the technology.
After dinner, Firmin takes us to a small guesthouse of a Catholic church for a meeting with several local men. They include Jonas Leclerc, a pastor and school teacher who has been teaching SODIS in his own community further up the mountain. A petite man in a ball cap and polo shirt, Leclerc waited by a phone for most of the day to hear news of Pierik’s arrival, and then hitched a two-hour ride on the back of a motorcycle down the rugged path to meet him.
This is the perfect situation: a pull from the community rather than a push from the organization.
Leclerc has much to say: people like SODIS because they prefer the taste to water treated with chlorine tablets, and because it’s free. “I don’t want to go too far,” he says in Creole. “But SODIS is the answer to a lot of our water problems.”
It’s a cautious but ringing endorsement in a place with more than its fair share of water problems. Even before the 2010 cholera epidemic, introduced by UN peacekeeping troops responding to the earthquake, Haiti’s water security and quality was declared the worst in the hemisphere. The villages here have public faucets, but the spring water that flows down the mountain to a cistern needs to be treated. The cholera outbreak affected this area, but there were no cases in the villages where people used SODIS.
One of his challenges, Leclerc explains, is that there are many organizations promoting other methods of disinfection. Just recently, people from another NGO dropped off a load of water filters. They stayed for ten minutes to explain the process and then left. The filter has a life-span of perhaps a year, and there’s no guarantee the same group will be back. The local people are tired of getting different instructions.
“When I’m doing the training,” Leclerc explains, “some people say SODIS is lies.
They ask thousands of questions to make me uncomfortable. What I need now is more training so I know what SODIS is, so I can answer.”
Pierik nods. The goal of the Water School, he explains, is not that everyone uses SODIS, it’s that everyone has clean water. He thinks it important to acknowledge the strengths of other technologies, while also describing the strengths of SODIS. “Every technology has strengths,” he says. “The most important measure is how well it works in a community.”
By that standard, Leclerc has found success. He began to teach SODIS in his own village, and eventually worked his way into eight others, an area encompassing about 18,000 people. Pierik is fascinated. He assures Leclerc that he will give him more scientific information, including studies on positive health impacts in communities that use SODIS.
“It sounds like you had a demand,” he says, and Leclerc nods. This is the perfect situation: a pull from the community rather than a push from the organization. “So why is that?” he asks. Leclerc shrugs. “It’s so simple and anybody can do it,” he says. “Sometimes you receive grants to do water projects but sometimes you don’t. So what do you do? With the Water School you don’t need a grant.”
The point sticks in my mind as we drive down the mountain the next day, and Pierik and Firmin discuss how to make the Water School more sustainable. What appeals to me about their work is the light-handedness of it, the relative invisibility of people like Pierik and Robert Dell. I think of Jonas Leclerc heading the other direction on the back of a motorcycle, passing women carrying sticks and lentils, armed only with knowledge and passion for this beautiful place.