Mission: Haiti 2009
Don’t Flush Their Future
By Sarah Brownell
Every year, 2.8 million people — mostly children — die from preventable waterborne illnesses. That’s almost one million more people than die from AIDS, twice as many as die from malaria, and nearly three times as many as those who die each year in the United States from cancer and heart attacks combined. In 2000, one of them was my friend Jeffery.
Jeffery was 2 years old and I knew his mom, Cally, because she taught me how to wash clothes by rubbing the cloth between my knuckles while squatting over a plastic tub on the ground. The first time I visited Haiti, a shipping problem put my solar-panel project on hold, and I passed the time learning the local language and culture. One day I stopped to help Cally with her work; she hired herself out to wash other people’s laundry as a way to earn a meager living. Jeffery was there toddling around the washbasin whenever I visited his mom and we got to be friends, maybe since neither of us spoke much Kreyol. When I went on the local radio station to announce upcoming meetings, I’d always give him a “shout out.” Before I left, Cally was pregnant with her second son, Jovenson.
By the time I returned two years later, Jeffery had died from severe diarrhea and Jovenson had suffered a bout with polio, leaving him disabled. I was left with a sorely broken heart and a clear call to prevent more illnesses and deaths.
Most waterborne illnesses (including diarrhea and polio) are preventable and/or treatable, accomplished by providing people access to safe water and sanitation, promoting good hygiene and vaccinations, and treating illnesses with rehydration serum and antibiotics. But six children will still die from these illnesses in the time it takes you to read this article.
Globally, 1.1 billion people do not have safe water to drink and 2.6 billion people have no toilet. These statistics include the majority of people in Haiti. They get water from natural springs, hand-dug wells, or from contaminated piped supplies, and use the riverbanks, beach, ravines, or plastic grocery bags as a place to go to the bathroom. Most schools have no latrine, which often keeps girls from attending once they begin menstruating.
The steep trail from Gentilhomme to drinking water. Women and children make the trip up to three times a day.
Where Climbing For Christ works in Gentilhomme, drinking water is an hour’s walk or more away on a treacherous path down to a (surprisingly clean, thank God) spring on the edge of the riverbank. From Malasi, they must walk several hours, passing Gentilhomme, to use this same water source. They supplement with rainwater collected off the roofs of their houses and stored in musty cement tanks. Only the church, school, and depot built and supported by Climbing For Christ have latrines.
In 2007, Climbing For Christ and my organization, Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods (SOIL), began working together to improve sanitation in Gentilhomme and Malasi. The first step was holding a sanitation seminar for community leaders in December 2007.
Sarah Brownell teaching about sanitation in Gentilhomme in December 2007.
Using stories, drawings, games, mapping, small group work, and discussions, we explored how waterborne illness is spread, how it is prevented, and the plethora of water and sanitation technologies that have been developed around the world, including extensive information on ecological sanitation (ECOSAN). ECOSAN provides people with access to a toilet, but also protects water resources and reclaims the nutrients in human wastes for use as fertilizer. After a discussion on the various sanitation options, we developed a community “Sanitation Guide” that declares what the leaders collectively want in a sanitation system. Some of their requirements included that it not be stinky, that it protect water resources, that it be easy to clean, that it provide privacy, and, after learning about ECOSAN, that it would allow the wastes to be transformed into fertilizer. We then compared the toilet types that the group liked best to our guide.
In Gentilhomme, they chose to compare the latrine, the arborloo, and the dry toilet.
Building arborloos in Gentilhomme.
An arborloo is like a traditional latrine, but it has a shallow pit less than one meter deep with a light concrete slab and house structure over it. When the pit fills, you simply move the slab and house over a new pit, cover the full pit with soil and then plant a tree. Families can also add other compostable organic wastes like kitchen scraps and leaves.
The dry toilet is called “dry” for two reasons: it doesn’t use water and the urine is separated from the feces by the toilet seat. They are collected separately. Urine is virtually sterile and makes a great fertilizer when diluted with water. The feces are covered with a drying material like sawdust or sugar cane bagasse to keep the smell down and the flies out. The dry toilet has two chambers, one that is in use and one for storage. The toilet seat can be moved between the chambers, which allows the feces to sit for up to a year before being removed and composted.
Using the sanitation guide, Gentilhomme’s leaders decided that the arborloo was most suited to their situation.
Because the community leaders chose the arborloo, I returned to Gentilhomme with Climbing For Christ in 2008 to build experimental arborloos using SOIL’s new design called the TwaletSOL. Eight families agreed to test the TwaletSOL, which can be built for about US $80. We also held a similar sanitation seminar in Malasi and built one arborloo at the pastor’s house there. If the pilot TwaletSOL’s are successful, we will work to bring them to all households in Gentilhomme and Malasi, so that no one will have to use the ravine or riverbank again!
Most people think that the flush toilet is the height of toilet design. You flush it and your wastes are carried away. But where are they carried away to? Mexico City, the largest city in the world, treats only 2 percent of its wastewater before discharging. Even in the U.S., cities with combined sewers dump millions of gallons of untreated wastewater each week. Approximately five times a day in San Francisco and almost every time it rains in New York City, untreated water pours into the ocean.
At the same time, people living in Gentilhomme and Malasi would be taxed to provide the water needed to flush a toilet, carrying it for at least an hour in 5-gallon buckets on their heads. As water and energy shortages continue to occur more frequently in the world, we all may need to reconsider if it really makes sense to go to the bathroom in perfectly good drinking water. Dry toilets and arborloos may be the wave of the future.
A Gentilhomme man taking home the arborloo he just built.
As an engineer, I feel blessed to be able to offer my skills to the people in Gentilhomme and Malasi, but I have much to learn from them as well: about community, about faith, and about living in tune with the natural world. I am grateful to God for the opportunity to serve and be served, both for the sake of children like Jeffery and for my own.
Sarah Brownell, a member of Climbing For Christ since November 2007, is co-founder of Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods (SOIL). Visit www.oursoil.org to learn more about SOIL. Brownell, who calls Cap-Haitien, Haiti and Rochester, N.Y. home, has participated in Mission: Haiti 2007 and 2008. This story originally appeared in The Climbing Way (Volume 14, Summer 2009).
Posted July 29, 2009