Biosand Filters, Tap-taps, and Tent Camps

Stetter - Haiti
Along the coast

My research on Biosand filter programs in Haiti continued this week when I met with Chris Rollings, Executive Director of the NGO Clean Water for Haiti (CWH).  CWH is located in Pierre Payen, a village on the coast near the city of Saint Marc in the central Artibonite Department, far from my home base in Léogâne.  Getting to Pierre Payen was an adventure in itself, involving the confusing, crowded Haitian public transportation system and a mototaxi ride across a flooded Port-au-Prince.  Thanks for the help of several friendly Haitians, I made it to Pierre Payen in one piece, where Chris picked me up and brought me to CWH.  Clean Water for Haiti is a small operation, but Chris and his staff have been working in the area since 2001.  This is considerably longer than most the NGOs working with Biosand filters, many of whom arrived after the hurricanes in 2008 or the earthquake in 2010.  As a result, Chris and his team were able to give me an idea of how Biosand filter programs work in the long run, which is something most organizations don’t have enough experience to comment on.  Before coming, I had been interested in researching whether Biosand filters could be produced and sold as a sustainable business.  This was an exciting prospect, since it would provide households with a reliable, affordable source of clean water that wasn’t dependent on foreign aid or NGO assistance, and could boost local economies. From everything I’ve seen and heard so far, however, it doesn’t seem like there is any way to make this work in Haiti.  Some organizations have successfully turned Biosand filter programs into sustainable businesses in countries like the Philippines, but in Haiti the full cost of a filter is between $50 to $100 US when you take into account all parts, labor, and installation costs.  Few Haitian households can afford such a high price, and those that could afford it prefer to buy their water as a sign of their purchasing power.

In addition to my interviews with NGOs, I’ve been attempting to do research about what kinds of water infrastructure and services are provided by the Haitian government.  This is a difficult undertaking.  Official documents and information are hard to come by, especially outside of Port-au-Prince, and when they can be found, what’s on paper doesn’t necessarily match with reality.  Scheduling meetings in general can also be a struggle, and oversized egos, packed calendars, and unreliable public transportation have proven to be formidable opponents.

A "tap-tap", the main form of Haitian public transportation

I’ve inevitably had some downtime in the past weeks, and I look advantage of this for a weekend trip to the town of Port Salut on the southern coast.  Beyond just a quiet port with a beautiful beach, Port Salut and nearby Les Cayes are interesting because they stand in contrast to the earthquake-affected area around Port-au-Prince.  The tent camps of Léogâne often look like a field of advertisements for donor states, with American, Chinese, and Venezuelan flags all prominently displayed on the materials donated by their respective countries.  The most impressive thing about Port Salut was the absence of tents and NGOs.  As the mototaxi from Les Cayes crossed the mountains to Port Salut, I saw irrigation canals crossing fields and a technician working to fix the power lines in town.  The only NGO worker I encountered during the trip had in fact stopped his car to marvel at this sight, since Haitian public services are normally so non-existent.  Overall, it left me with the impression that things do work sometimes in Haiti.  A simple impression, but one that can easily be forgotten in the chaos of daily life in many parts of the country.

Posted by Kelly Stetter – MA Candidate at CLACS

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