Wadson Desir pours clean water from one of his filtration systems. Photo credit: Taina Saintilmond

By Sam Bojarski

Wadson Desir never intended to design a water filtration system, until he started visiting poor communities throughout Haiti and spending countless hours talking to residents about their health concerns. In Gonaives and other areas, Desir recalled, children were developing skin rashes, while women complained about frequent vaginal infections.

Some residents requested a medical team. But after talking to more people, Desir, 40, came to a different conclusion.

“It took me like more than a year to think about what can be done to solve the problem, and after two years, I figured out that I have to work to provide clean water,” Desir said.

A community advocate who frequently works as a translator for mission groups, Desir’s love for his people and his deep understanding of the health challenges they face sets him apart from other organizations that work in Haiti.

With help from partners in the United States, he has helped implement five community water stations in Haiti over the past three years. Poor communities in Gonaives, Boutillier, Laboule and Belot have all benefited from his efforts. The water stations serve more than 25 families each day and have limited the spread of waterborne diseases, according to Desir.

Haiti’s water challenges

According to the World Bank, 38 percent of the Haitian population does not have access to safe drinking water.

“As a medical professional, I understand that if there’s not access to clean water, there’s not going to be access to good health,” said Megan Foltz, a registered nurse who has led multiple medical teams to Haiti. Foltz also serves as vice president of Humankind, a company that provides clean drinking water to communities in developing countries.

Various challenges, from lack of infrastructure, to government corruption, have contributed to Haiti’s water challenges, according to Foltz. Land ownership, she added, can be difficult to prove, which makes it hard to install piping and assign responsibility for its maintenance.

Most Haitians that I’ve talked to have expressed frustration at the governmental level,” Foltz said. Haiti’s reliance on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for infrastructure development often means “the government isn’t always challenged to step up,” she said.

With no infrastructure, urban residents must purchase plastic containers, or bottles, of filtered water. Families, Desir said, typically buy five-gallon jugs, which they can refill periodically.

With the majority of Haitians living on $2 per day, “that’s really hard if you have to be providing for a family and you’re purchasing water on top of it,” Foltz said.

Accessing water is much different in rural areas. A five-gallon jug, Desir said, wouldn’t last five minutes in the countryside, where families can have more than 10 children. A cost of about 100 gourdes (roughly US$1.25, , would make one jug incredibly expensive for a rural family.

As a result, many people draw water from nearby rivers or streams. Others, Desir said, dig wells. These water sources, however, put people at a high risk of illness. Seventy percent of the water in Haiti, according to Desir, is polluted, largely with human feces.

Haitian cities lack sewage treatment systems, and as Desir explained, human waste often ends up contaminating water sources. The bacteria in this waste causes diseases like cholera. A large-scale outbreak occurred in the fall of 2010, shortly after the earthquake, when sewage from a United Nations camp spilled into a tributary of the Arbonite River.

To compound the problem, Haiti’s soil does a relatively poor job of filtering water, for those who use wells.  

“You’re on this big piece of coral, essentially, so even if you have a well, because this is very porous land, what happens is the water does not have a natural filtration process,” Foltz said.

Working toward a solution

Jordany Limage, who lives in Gonaives, said that in some areas of town, “people don’t have access to get clean water.” Those who cannot purchase purified water, he added, use wells.

While training people to use his filtration systems, Desir recalls asking subjects, rhetorically, why they use dirty water. They usually tell him they have no choice.

Rural residents are forced to use unclean water not just for bathing, but also for cleaning their clothes and cooking, added Desir. His filtration systems, however, have changed this reality.

It all started about seven years ago, when Desir served as an interpreter for Tom Schaner and a friend, Howard Rich. They were working to bring water filters to individual families in rural Haiti, on behalf of an ecumenical group called Churches in Action. According to Schaner, Desir showed an interest in their work, and the men developed a relationship. In 2016, Desir proposed a plan for community water stations, which Schaner and Rich adopted.

“Wadson found the barrels and he came up with the first, original plan, for Boutillier. He knows the community and he sites these systems, in other words, he will propose the next sighting for the next additional system,” said Schaner, of Hamburg, New York.

Most water stations, Schaner said, are housed inside a small building. With the help of an assistant, Raymond Smith, Desir hires Haitian contractors to perform plumbing or masonry work. He has purposefully made the stations simple to use.

Contractors perform construction work on a community water station. Photo credit: Wadson Desir

Each one contains two 125-gallon barrels located near a water source, typically a cistern that holds rainwater. Some systems use hand pumps, while the station in Belot uses gasoline-generated power to move the water between barrels.

Users pour water from the cistern into the first barrel, where it is filtered. The water is then pumped through pipes and into the second barrel, which holds the clean water, according to Schaner. Desir added that the treatment process takes less than a minute.

The five stations are installed in churches and schools – places that serve as hubs of community life. Churches in Action, located in the Buffalo, New York area, has funded all of them so far. Anyone interested in donating, Schaner said, can reach out to the group through its website. They plan to build an additional water station in Saint Jacques this spring.

Although community members can access the water for free, Schaner said local residents must maintain the stations. Desir also helps in this area, by conducting training sessions.

“After installing a system, I make some training, two days’ training with about 10 people. And among the trained people I will choose (the) two best … to manage the system,” Desir said.

Each manager is compensated for their work, said Desir, and his American partners help community centers out, if they struggle with payment. The water stations, open for over eight hours each day, have already produced results.

In just six months of using filtered water, Elisena Daout, of Gonaives, said she has seen changes in her family’s health.

“We have big health improvements in the family. My family has 15 people. Before using the filtered water, my kids had complained about diarrhea, abdominal pain, vaginal infection and all other (kinds) of waterborne diseases. We had cholera. The filtered water has brought big change for us,” Daout said through Desir, who served as her translator.

A heart for the people

People like Daout, who come from Haiti’s poorest communities, do not receive much help from their government. But even outside groups, which often assume the government’s role, are often inadequate. According to Foltz, 75 percent of the care Haitians receive comes from NGOs, mostly staffed by Americans or Europeans.

Over 100 NGOs operate in Haiti, said Desir, who has represented Boutillier in local government. However, these organizations often lack knowledge of the problems that affect most Haitians.

NGOs, he added, will visit the country for weeks, or months at a time. Teams might stay at a guesthouse and travel back-and-forth to a single site every day. Then, they turn around and go home.

“You can spend your whole life coming to Haiti, but you do nothing,” Desir said of this common scenario.

Schaner has done some traveling around Haiti with Desir. One thing he has noticed is how many people Desir knows. These connections have proven immensely helpful. Schaner said he never would have known about dirty water in Gonaives if it weren’t for Desir. Two water stations are now located there.

“He has a real allegiance to the people of Haiti, he has a strong affinity to the common man. He wants to improve their daily (lives) and water is just one example,” Schaner said.

A different man may have requested a medical team for Gonaives, when residents asked for one. But Desir’s passion for helping others and his willingness to dig deeper, helped him find the chronic problem.

This is the type of commitment it takes to make a difference in people’s lives, Desir said.

“To help a community, to be a leader in Haiti, you need to have a heart. If you don’t have a heart, you can’t be a good leader. How could you implement a project for them if you don’t love them? You have to love them, you have to know them,” said Desir.

Sam is a reporter for The Haitian Times and a 2020 Report for America corps member. He has covered Haiti and its diaspora since 2018. His work has also appeared in USA Today, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Haiti Liberte. Sam can be reached at sam@haitiantimes.com or on Twitter @sambojarski.

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