"Every time I think I have found the community that is struggling with the most difficult situation in terms of water, I find people struggling with a problem that is even harder."
The week after MPP's 40th Anniversary Congress, I went with my friend from Oregon, Susan L. Smith to visit some of our work in the mountains of Verettes in Haiti's Artibonite. Susan is a professor of environmental law at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon and a water justice advocate. She has worked with MPP (MPP website)for going on five years now, helping to provide funding and bring awareness of the need for clean water in the rural and disadvantaged communities of the Central Plateau. Susan is the Clean Water Leader for the United Church of Christ (UCC).
The Artibonite valley, with the majestic Artibonite river running through, is considered Haiti's "rice basket." While water is superabundant in the lower elevations of Verettes, it is can be extremely difficult in the mountain communities. Hosted by Nestly Voltair and other leaders of ODEVPRE (Organization for Development and Environmental Protection of Verettes), Susan was invited by ODEVPRE to see first hand the needs of the communities surrounding a spring known as Remonsaint. This site was about two and a half hours of tedious driving on a barely existent road. Walking, the community is about the same distance from Verettes, taking the much (much) steeper foot paths.
Susan Smith (blue shirt, red hat) visiting with the women and children patiently collecting water that slowly seeps into holes dug in the sand in this ravine. When I asked permission of the women to take this photo, they agreed without reservation, noting that the more people who know of their situation, the more hope they have that there can be change. Coordinates: N 18.99427, W 72.54382.
Trying to get some type of estimate for the number of people who depend on this site for their water, we asked the folks collecting water how many communities used this site. They listed for us about ten different mountain communities that come here during the driest months of the year (usually January-March). Then we asked about how many people live in each of those communities. The response that was a range. Folks estimated that the smallest had as few as 200 and the largest had at least 500. We took 300 as a possible average, which would mean that this ravine may be the main water supply for as many as 3,000 mountain inhabitants, for some part of the year.
Capping the Remonsaint water source. A Swiss aid organization, Helvetas (Helvetas) is helping the community of Remonsaint cap the spring and build a large cistern to store the water. It impressed me to find a non-governmental organization able to identify a need in an area as remote as this, and respond.
We spent a good bit of time visiting the folks working on the large cistern that will hold water from the spring and Susan and I were particularly impressed with one of the workers and a member of a local community (Terre-nette), Onondieu Louisius.
Onondieu Louisius from Terre-nette, one of the workers building Remonsaint's cistern. Onondieu helped explain the need for reforestation and the complications the communities face in following through with that need. Onondieu gave me permission to publish his photo on internet and to share his observations.
Onondieu was clear that the mountains of Verettes desperately need tree cover for many reasons, but especially to protect and increase the water supply for the local communities. He was also elegant in explaining some of the complications. Onondieu pointed out that because the area is remote and the road is so bad, trees grown in nurseries at lower elevations suffer too much by the time the reach the area around Remonsaint. That means that local tree nurseries are needed to produce trees that don't need to be transported long distances, and are better adapted to local conditions. But in an environmental catch-22, the lack of water during the dry season makes it impossible to establish a viable tree nursery during the dry months, which is when they have to be produced in order to plant them out during the rainy season. Onondieu noted that of course the area could produce trees during the rainy season, but said, " If we grow them during the rainy season, what will be the use of planting them out during the dry season? They will just die." He also noted that there are organizations that often come in and give away trees to local farmers, but they rarely come back to find out if the trees were planted, or if they survived.
Inside the cap. The bamboo is holding up the form until the cement dries thoroughly. Once the main part of the cap is formed, the workers will remove the bamboo and fill in this space.
At this point, at the end of March, the spring was providing very little water. As it begins to rain in the area, some of our sources noted that fewer people would be coming to get water, which would give the spring time to recharge and to fill up the cistern. However, when we calculated the size of the cistern that is being built, we found that it would hold about 22.5 m3 of water, or about 22,500 liters. At 25 liters per person per day (the minimum per person used as a standard by the United Nations, according to Susan), the cistern would provide enough water for about 900 people, less than a third of the people who may depend on it.
As we left the spring, Susan observed, "Every time I think I have found the community that is struggling with the most difficult situation in terms of water, I find people struggling with a problem that is even harder."