Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Day 20: BSF Community Assessments Begin

After spending the majority of my time here in the base working on the computer or helping train up our two supervisors, Reginald & Elivert, last week I was finally able to get out into the community and start hunting for a good place to deliver our biosand filters. It was an eye-opening experience in many ways. Everyone here knows people have serious problems finding safe drinking water, and the entire country is all too aware of the cholera epidemic, but to be out and see it first-hand makes it real. Elivert, Reginald and I spent all of last Friday out in two communities that we had heard had serious water problems. By the end of the day all three of us were a bit shocked by what we'd learned.

The first community is a larger one called Gressier. It is on the national highway, about twenty minutes east of Leogane on the way to Port-au-Prince. I was in Gressier a few weeks ago and talked to a man there who had lost his home in the earthquake, and was being considered as a recipient for our rubble clearing efforts. After Jen (the person in charge of doing rubble assessments) talked to him to get the info she needed, I asked him if he’d be willing to talk with me for a bit about water problems in the community. He obliged, and we did. He mentioned that Gressier had serious problems with cholera, and that he felt that biosand filters would be very welcome by the people there, so last Friday we went in for an initial data gathering mission.

A little boy sits outside his home in Gressier.
A small river runs through the center of Gressier so we opted to talk to the communities that lived by the river to get some basic info from them on where they get their drinking water, what they know about waterborne illnesses, and what support they were getting from NGOs in the area in regards to water, if they were getting any at all. While we got a lot of info, the thing that everyone mentioned was that cholera was a very real problem for them. Probing a bit deeper, we discovered that many of the people in the community relied on a natural spring for their drinking water. The spring water is contaminated, and it flows into the river that subsequently flows through the many communities downstream from the spring. We got directions on how to find it, and, after thanking the many people who were incredibly forthcoming and helpful with their information, we jumped back into our tap-tap to go find the source.

A woman in Gressier washes clothes as kids swim in the background.
Kids running away from me as I explored Gressier.
After a five minute drive upstream from the community we started in, we found the spring. It is semi-protected, with a large concrete storage shed built over it. Taps come out from the walls of the shed, and many people were busy collecting it in buckets and covered bottles. After collecting the water, they all lined up and, one at a time, their water was treated by two people that we found out were local hires employed by Oxfam. Using a small syringe, one of them, a young man, squirted the required amount of chemicals (a mix of Aquatab and bleach) into each container to kill the disease-causing microbes in the water, while the other, a young woman, talked to them about hygiene, sanitation and proper ways to use and protect their water. A large water bladder sat nearby, but remained unused, as it was only turned on after 5PM when the two Oxfam employees left for the day.

Reginald (left) and Elivert talking to one of the Oxfam employees at the contaminated source in Gressier.
Talking to the Oxfam team, we got a goldmine of information about the water challenges that part of Gressier was facing, and particularly about cholera. The Oxfam team had been there for the majority of this year working to educate people in the area about cholera, and how to protect themselves from it. Some of the numbers were shocking. At the height of the outbreak in that community, 240 people a day every day for three weeks were being taken to the local Red Cross hospital to be treated for cholera. They told us that the fear in the community had become so intense that one elderly man accidentally killed himself when, fearing he had cholera, he swallowed an Aquatab pill directly. Aquatabs are a mix of chemicals that are designed to be dissolved in contaminated water. A large dose taken directly would be very poisonous.

Hygiene workers painting the Gressier source with health info - "Don't drink river water." "Don't poop near the river." "Treat the water you use." 
A girl in Gressier waits for her turn to collect water.
The two Oxfam workers also told us that come June 30th, they were pulling out of Gressier, and handing their operation over to a local community-run organization called RAPIDE. We got contact info for James, the head of that organization, and after a phone call made yesterday, we're set to meet with him this Friday to see exactly what his plans are when it comes to continuing to make sure that community has someone helping them with their drinking water. His plan is to continue to do exactly what Oxfam was doing, but I have to wonder if he can pull it off. (Where is he going to get his funding? Is Oxfam going to leave the water bladder? If not, who is going to treat the water in the evenings? What is the long-term plan to try and improve the drinking water source rather than the individual buckets and galons of it that people are taking?) I think it's a great thing that the community has taken it upon themselves to try and deal with the problems they have, but I also know how difficult it can be for local community organizations, given they do not have the bank accounts that the international NGOs have.

After thanking the Oxfam employees, we stopped off for a quick bite to eat before we left Gressier en route to our second community - Carrefour Dufort. At lunch, once again the Haitians proved their warmth of spirit. The lady who made and served us our food at her little roadside shack was so happy when I told her I thought her food was great that she came over with another healthy serving of it and loaded up my plate for no extra charge. She was beaming as I wolfed it down, and followed it up with a complimentary sack of water for me. Really sweet.

We had chosen Carrefour Dufort as our second community to investigate because we had heard that many people in certain parts of Dufort were drinking river water. Reginald knew the specific community in question, so we once again followed a river to find it. The community is called Barrier Jeudi, and it sits on the outskirts of the city, in a very rural setting. It is nestled against a bend in the river, and from the beginning it was very clear that the river provided many of the water resources the community needed. People were washing their clothes in it, and bathing in it. While still dirty, the river was noticeably cleaner than the river in Gressier, which can be problematic because it can lead people to believe the water is safer to drink. Indeed, unlike Gressier, I saw many holes dug around the banks of the river in Barrier Jeudi, which is common when people are drinking the water from a river. They dig a hole near the water's edge, and slowly the water will flow through the sand into the hole, having some of the mud and silt and particulates removed in the process. Unfortunately, it does little to remove bacteria, viruses and other pathogens.

School's out and the kids head home in Barrier Jeudi.
We split up and spent the afternoon talking to people in Barrier Jeudi, most of whom admitted that the majority of the people in the community were reliant on river water for drinking. Unlike Gressier, cholera was not a major problem in Barrier Jeudi, but some cases had been reported. Also unlike Gressier, Barrier Jeudi has zero support from the international community and the NGOs working in and around Leogane. The people we spoke to said that NGOs had been in the community before, but never stayed. One organization built them toilets, but then left, so now they are unused as the community doesn't have the means to empty them once they fill up. Another organization occasionally delivers Aquatabs, but it is inconsistent so the people can't rely on it. A water truck does come by the community daily, but that is a business, not a relief organization, so they charge for the water. It isn't something most of the people there can afford.

A young woman and her friend washing clothes by the river in Barrier Jeudi.
We were introduced to Roselyne, a dynamic young woman and mother who also led the local community organization there. She verified for us that most of what the people we'd talked to told us was true, and gave us some numbers. She said the immediate community was 150 households, some in tents, others in permanent homes. She herself lived in a Shelterbox tent, which, in my humble opinion, is hands down the best tent in Haiti. Yes, it's still a tent, and that's frustrating after a year and a half of having to live in one, but Shlelterbox tents last. Sun, rain, wind. They hold up. At this point they're really the only pure tents that I see left in and around Leogane. All the others have succumbed to the elements, and their residents have moved into lean-tos - tarp and tin and wood boxes they nail together with whatever they can find.

A toddler in Barrier Jeudi washing clothing.
Roselyn toured the community with us and we got to speak to more people. In the middle of talking to an old woman who was telling us about the history of NGOs coming to help but then leaving, I saw a familiar face. Robinson, a local volunteer from last year, came out beaming. "Quinn! My man!" It was great to see him, and he reminded me that I'd actually been out to the community before, with him, to assess his home to see if it was the right kind of home for a filter. Unfortunately, it wasn't (he had a dirt floor and a leaky tarp roof, which he still has now), so we couldn't give him a filter, but having the chance to see him again was great.

Goats, girls and grass in Barrier Jeudi.
After saying our goodbyes to him, Roselyn, and the old woman, Elivert, Reginald and I bid farewell to the community and walked back to the tap-tap, snapping some photos. All three of us were excited, because while what we'd discovered that day was sad, even a little shocking, we all three also had that swell of energy and motivation that comes when you feel you can truly help people that need it. No final decisions have been made about which community we will start in, but Reginald and Elivert are on their way back out to Barrier Jeudi today to get more information about the surrounding communities. Hopefully soon we'll have our decision made on which community will be our beneficiary community, and we can begin to work closely with the community leaders to get the ball rolling and the filters delivered and installed. It's great to see things start to come together. To quote Reginald, grinning from ear to ear as we walked back to the tap-tap from Barrier Jeudi, "BSF rocks!". Indeed it does.

Celebrating with Reginald after a good day's work.

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