Haiti’s Camp Residents Seek Solutions As Money to Clean Latrines Disappears

Above: Champ de Mars, Port-au-Prince

AS INTERNATIONAL ORGANIZATIONS in Haiti begin their drawdown, millions earmarked for cleaning latrines departs with them, while those in the country’s camps seek answers. With support from the Fund for Investigative Journalism in Haiti, Phares Jerome and Valery Daudier report.

By Phares Jerome and Valery Daudier

PORT-AU-PRINCE — Some 11,000 mobile toilets were installed by a rainbow of international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) following Haiti’s 2010 earthquake. Supplied largely by the Clinton Foundation, the US Agency for International Development and UNICEF, and then redistributed by the NGO community to hundreds of camps, these latrines improved the living conditions and staved off pending health problems for some of the 1.5 million who were displaced.

Now, donor dollars are drying up even as toilets overflow. It’s one thing for the funders to cinch their belt; it’s another for those in the camps.

Because of the sheer number of people and organizations involved in human waste disposal, it’s nearly impossible to calculate how much has been spent over the last two years. Dozens of NGOs signed contracts with local companies to empty the latrines; $8 a day per toilet, as opposed to $125 to empty a 125-gallon drum of sewage.

Each agency or organization has its own tab. UNICEF spent $1.4 million cleaning portable toilets over the last two years; the French Action Against Hunger (ACF) invested $2.675 million in sanitation, most of which went for cleaning latrines. The Federation of Red Cross and Islamic Red Cross spent $55 million for water and sewage treatment through September 2011.

“It’s important not to focus on the money but on the sanitary catastrophe that was avoided,” said Moustapha Niang, UNICEF’s hygiene, water and sanitation consultant.

“In an emergency situation, you have to respond quickly to save victims. This is always costly, but not sustainable. Everyone knows that,” said Anne Charlotte Schneider, head of Haiti’s ACF’s mission.

If sustainability were the name of the game, however, everyone would also know this approach was all wrong. Temporary latrines are just that – temporary. But because many of the camps were on private land, a temporary solution was the only one considered.

“When it’s impossible to build a sustainable infrastructure, we went with mobile toilets even though they were [the] most costly,” said Peleg Charles, communications director for OXFAM, which worked on waste disposal in 123 camps.

Sanitary engineer Frantz Benoît, of the Haitian Association of Sanitary Engineering and Environmental Sciences, said that if there had been a sewer system, the task of managing the human waste would have been easier. Prior to the quake, only 17 percent of the capital’s population had access to a standard flush toilet, so it was foolish to think that suddenly 1.5 million newly homeless could be connected to what was, at best, an antiquated sewage system. The Haitian authorities had neither the means, nor the technical competence, to do so.

Morne-a-Cabrit

“Since there wasn’t [a sewer system], that meant that the NGO community, which came to help us, had to use what was available,” Benoit said. “The only criticism one can make of them is how the toilets were distributed among the camp dwellers.”

Distribution was as erratic as the earthquake’s aftershocks. ACF identified 100 families for only two latrines in a southern suburb; in the capital centre, the latrines, stamped with donors’ logos, surrounded the camp’s perimeter like sentinels but rarely was the international SPHERE standard of one toilet per 20 people –by gender –respected. Most residents use plastic bags. In the case of Camp Acra, in the residential neighborhood of Delmas, the ravine behind the camp is the resident “plastic bag” dumping ground.

“Besides the Haitian Red Cross and Samaritan’s purse [who gave us some things], we did not receive any support,” said 27-year old James Pierre, a Camp Acra resident. “And for the last year, they are gone along with their resources. Since then, we’ve been forgotten entirely.

The most recent NGO to jump ship is the International Rescue Committee (IRC), which, as of Jan. 30, 2012, stopped all water and sanitation-related activities in 31 camps of the municipalities in and around Port-au Prince. IRC says it transferred its responsibility to either camp management committees, or the National Directorate Agency of Water and Sanitation (DINEPA).

ACF will soon follow suit. At the end of the month, it will stop emptying the portable toilet units at Champs de Mars, across from the crumpled national palace. To date, it has installed some 682 units in about 40 camps. According to its two-year financial sheet, ACF claims 800 000 people benefited from its services. Aside from Champ de Mars, Schneider said ACF has transferred latrine cleaning in all its other sites to DINEPA.

“The only officially registered transfer to date has been that of the Federation of Red Crosses,” said the head of the sewage for DINEPA, engineer Edwige Petit, when questioned about the number of NGOs still present in the camps.

OCHA says there are still 515,819 people living in over 700 camps in the capital and surrounding areas as of this past January. Latrine cleaning was down 18.1 percent from the month before. And a bulletin published by OCHA states that: “356 latrines are going to be removed.”

“We are working with earthquake victims to return home,” said ACF’s Schneider. “We are now working on a multi-latrine project (five per latrine) for a total of $600,000.”

With the absence of data, it’s hard to compare sanitation before and after Haiti’s earthquake. But with an extensive outreach campaign, it appears that there is better sanitation awareness among the population. And, more tangibly, there is an excreta treatment center in Morne-à-Cabri north of the capital.

UNICEF, ECHO, OCHA and the American Red Cross have earmarked 2.6 million for this treatment centre, which receives between 30 and 50 barrels of excreta every day. A soon-to-be released report by the UN Water and Sanitation group (WASH Cluster) says that 17,000 cubic meters of excreta have already been treated since the launch of operations three months ago.

Morne-à-Cabri’s sewage treatment plant is the first of its kind in the country. A second one is under construction in Titanyen, funded by Spanish cooperation. Ironically, this plant does not receive excreta from the camps in the surrounding areas. Like much of the population, residents in nearby camps have no access to functioning latrines. Because public washrooms are not yet part of any national program, they are also missing from public markets, bus stations, schools and churches.

With bilateral funding and financing from the Inter-American Development Bank, UNICEF and the American Red Cross, DINEPA is executing its 2012-2014 action plan to increase health coverage of the country. This includes the construction of 12 wastewater treatment stations; the establishment of management/maintenance (including the reconstruction/rehabilitation) sanitary blocks in public places, which include reconstruction and/or rehabilitation, and a training and communication campaign to encourage the construction of toilets. No dollar amount has been offered.

As necessary and ambitious as this plan is, it doesn’t address the problems of the camps. The United Nation’s Central Fund for Emergency Response offered $8 million for 2012. A portion of this is to be used for projects targeting the displaced. If that doesn’t happen, disaster relief camps will provide even more fertile ground for the spread of cholera when the rainy season begins next month.

Phares Jerome and Valery Daudier are reporters for Le Nouvelliste. The preceding was published with the permission of the Fund for Investigative Journalism in Haiti, which made this article possible.