Plumbing’s response to the Haiti crisis

On 12 January 2010, the small island nation of Haiti was rocked by an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0. The tragedy brought to attention the poverty, lack of water and basic sanitation and desolation in which the people of this once popular nation reside.

The problems exacerbated by this natural disaster are deep rooted and while good intentions and fundraisers go a long way to rebuilding basic structures, the world needs to look at long term solutions to issues such as sanitation so that infrastructure is also attended to.

Unfortunately, this is more difficult than it sounds as the World Health Organisation (WHO) maintains strict rules about entry onto a roster which includes both specialized training by WHO and an ability to travel at very short notice. While there are many water supply engineers on the roster, according to the World Plumbing Council (WPC) there doesn’t seem to be any plumbing engineers on the list which means that the plumbing industry has no direct mechanism to provide support.

Until the plumbing industry is allowed to make comment, it seems those sanitation solutions may be a long way off.

Water sanitation is a problem that affects many of the world’s poorer nations. 2.6 billion people lack adequate sanitation, leading to five million deaths per year. The biggest problems are in the rural areas where slum dwellers are deprived of basic city services such as sewage treatment and water delivered through pipes.

Even if water is available through ground, spring or river, there is no infrastructure to farm it. As resource management is a political issue, and with politics in Haiti somewhat undermined, this causes further problems.

Bryan Schaaf spent more than two years, from 2000, working in the Haitian Appalachia with the Peace Corps. Schaaf gained experience with water projects taking note of what worked and what failed. “Haiti is strewn with water pumps that no longer work,” he said.

In an interview Schaaf conducted with he says the “sanitation situation in Haiti is pretty deplorable. If you live in a city you have better access to sanitation without a doubt than if you live in a rural area. Imagine a community that has access to water, but doesn’t have access to sanitation, that’s pretty much a recipe for not having access to clean water.”

Schaaf put this down to the absence of government leadership. He said that while urban areas have programs, rural areas are neglected and there is no sound vision for what water systems should look like.

Mention was also made that if you want to talk about water, you have to talk about sanitation and hygiene. “If you are not doing that you are not getting you’re maximum impact from your water project,” Schaaf says. “It’s important to think about sustainability from the onset.”

This is exactly what aid organisations and governments must do in light of the current Haitian situation. In developing countries such as Haiti, up to 90% of diarrheal illness, a leading cause of death can be attributed to unsafe water and poor sanitation.

The statistics in Haiti present some calamitous results. Twenty-nine percent of Haiti’s total population (2.3 million) does not have access to potable water and this was before the earthquake. Even when a public water system is available, many have to travel long distances to collect the water and still it has to be purified. In addition, potable water is not free, for the 80% of Haitians who live in abject poverty the cost of clean drinking water is a significant challenge.

In the past, organisations such as International Child Care have dug wells to provide potable water for entire communities. They have also constructed latrines for individual families. The local community is responsible to provide materials such as sand, gravel and blocks, while the ICC provides the blueprints and supplies such as cement, tin for the roof and PVC pipe. The ICC then pays local labourers to construct latrines under the supervision of an ICC employee.

According to sustainable access to such basic necessities will be the area of greatest need as Haiti recovers. Underground water and sanitation pipelines and concrete water storage tanks are severely damaged. What needs to happen quickly is to put some short term solutions in place. “The short term response typically includes bottled water and the use of high volume purification equipment. While this is expensive, it can quickly be deployed as a short term solution. The response of organizations involves the rehabilitation and expansion of sustainable water and sanitation infrastructure.”

They need to hurry. Dr Greg Elder, deputy operations manager for Doctors Without Borders says the “next health risk could be diarrhoea, respiratory tract infections and other diseases among hundreds of thousands of Haitians living in overcrowded camps with poor or non-existent sanitation.”

If this is the case, surely the plumbing fraternity, including engineers, hydraulic consultants and ground level plumbers, must be allowed to voice their opinions and start work on building new, sustainability based infrastructure.

World Plumbing Council chairman Robert Burgon says the plumbing community is currently doing what it can despite WHO restrictions.

“WPC members, like the rest of the world, were shocked to see the tragedy which resulted from January’s earthquake in Haiti. Those of us who live in countries where these events rarely if ever take place, cannot begin to imagine the terror and human suffering which arise both at the time of the event, in the days and weeks afterwards and then, perhaps more importantly, in the months and years in which the recovery process takes place.

In all such disasters, the role of access to clean water and sanitation quickly becomes apparent and Haiti is no exception. The reports coming from the aid agencies working there often mention these two issues as priorities. To date, WPC has been unable to find an effective mechanism for direct involvement in such circumstances. We have discussed this on several occasions with the World Health Organization.”

Robert says the WPC is aware of enthusiastic volunteers in previous disasters just getting on a plane and going to offer their services free of charge but are conscious that such offers are not coordinated and not always welcomed. It would be good to find a way to use the talents of people in the plumbing industry who would be able and willing to help. However, WPC is not a charitable organization and does not have funds which can be used in aid situations unlike many of the organizations currently playing a lead role in Haiti.

“We have tried on several occasions to create links with some of these charities so that plumbing expertise could be part of the solution they deliver on the ground but so far this has not met with any success. It is an area on which more work is required.”

Robert also believes that one future solution could be to train residents of poorer nations in basic plumbing techniques. It means if a natural disaster takes place, at least infrastructure would be in place and able to be maintained to a certain level during the crisis.

“Unfortunately, natural disasters often affect the poorest countries where, prior to the disaster, water and sanitation facilities were possibly at a level considerably below what would be expected elsewhere. It also seems that whatever solutions are put in place to support countries affected by such disasters are also at a very low level and of a relatively temporary nature. For example, one element which is often missed is ensuring that the people being provided with water and sanitation have access to skilled people who can ensure that such systems remain effective. Basic plumbing training for some local villagers should, in my view, always be part of what is done. The ideal situation would be where lasting solutions, based on sound principles, were provided thus taking the country’s citizens to a higher level than that which they had before the disaster.

“The WPC/WHO guidance book “Health Aspects of Plumbing” (HAP) would be an excellent model on which to base such work. WPC has therefore contacted the International Committee of the Red Cross in Haiti to draw their attention to HAP although in practice we suspect that their officials are somewhat preoccupied at the moment to deal with such a suggestion.”

Of all the areas of WPC’s current work, the plumbing industry’s response in emergencies and disasters is probably the one in which least progress has been made.

“This does not mean that we should stop trying and I am sure that we will continue to explore ways of ensuring that plumbing is properly involved and taken account of in disaster situations,” Robert says.

It would seem that solutions to problems of a disastrous nature have more to do with how much money can be raised than viable plumbing or purification infrastructure being built for the future. While monetary aid is welcome, the root problems need to be better understood so that funds are distributed to the areas in which they are most required. Second to medical aid is sanitation and the more money poured into infrastructure to rebuild Haiti the better this small country will be to deal with future problems.

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