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A race that together we're winning

By Elizabeth Stevens

June 7, 2010

With the crack of a sledgehammer on concrete, Oxfam's water and sanitation program in Delmas, Haiti, got underway.

The earth was still shuddering with aftershocks when survivors began to dig, carving out latrine trenches 10 feet long, 10 feet deep, and three feet wide through every kind of soil and pavement. Others did their part by quickly shaping platforms out of rocks and earth to support their new source of drinking water: Oxfam water bladders.

It was a race against time, and against deadly water-related bacteria like typhoid, hepatitis, and cholera that can thrive in crowded, unsanitary conditions. And it is a race that—so far, at least—we are winning. After the quake, hundreds of thousands of people had no access to toilets, and the water available wasn't fit to drink; yet, thanks to an all-out effort on the part of the displaced communities and aid agencies like Oxfam, there have been no outbreaks of waterborne disease.

Women have the last word

But there is more to water and sanitation programs than health.

"We build latrines not only because they help prevent the spread of disease, but because they should help protect the dignity and safety of disaster survivors living in camps," says Oxfam engineer Kenny Rae, who led the first phase of Oxfam's water and sanitation effort in Delmas.

There is a special focus on the safety of women and girls, because in the chaotic aftermath of disasters, they are particularly vulnerable to harassment and assault. The structure of a latrine—like the firmness of its latches and whether its doors open toward or away from the general population of a camp—has implications for safety, so Rae and his team listened closely to the concerns of women residents.

Shower construction was another important issue. Haiti's weather is so warm that shower stalls can be open to the sky, but where they were installed within view of multi-story buildings, women in Delmas had understandable concerns about privacy—which Rae and his team quickly addressed by adding roofs.

"When it came to sanitation facilities," says Rae, "women in the camps had the first and last word."

Empowerment and well-being

Helping survivors recover after disasters is not as simple as doling out goods and services: it requires attention to the many facets of community well-being.

For example, working for pay can help disaster survivors meet a range of needs, both financial and psychological. Oxfam offered wages to residents to dig latrine trenches, cover them with slabs of molded concrete or plastic, and build structures of wood and plastic sheeting around them for shelter and safety.

"We ended up employing more than 300 people to build latrines in Delmas," says Rae. "Their communities benefited from the project, and their families benefited from the income."

But in some cases, the need for community-building trumped the need for money. When it came to constructing platforms for water bladders, everyone worked for free, says Rae. "They treated the work as a contribution to their communities."

Protecting Haiti's forests

Caring for Haiti's fragile environment was another key consideration for the water and sanitation team, which needed wood for construction.

"From the outset," says Rae, "we determined that we weren’t going to use local timber poles because of the impact on deforestation."

The team found a source of timber imported from the US. It was more expensive than local wood, and at first it was hard to find enough of it. But, says Rae, in a country as deforested and as vulnerable to landslides as Haiti, the environmental cost of harvesting timber is tremendous.

An open-door policy

When Rae and his team assessed the local water and sanitation situation, they found settlements where thousands of displaced residents had gathered. But Delmas is also dotted with tiny camps and informal schools, and it took time to understand the full extent of the needs. Oxfam staff kept their eyes—and their office—open, continually updating their plans and assessments.

"We had an open-door policy," says Rae. "Pastors, school directors, and other community leaders would bring their requests and concerns to the Oxfam office on a near-daily basis, and we were almost always able to respond."

Still, the needs are enormous

After helping create water and sanitation facilities in 21 sites, serving 40,000 people, Rae has returned home for a rest. Sort of.

"Of course, I was pleased to get back to the people I love," says Rae, "but I was torn because the needs on the ground in Haiti are so enormous."

When he goes back to Haiti, it will be to work on another key issue in the recovery: shelter. His focus will be not only the homeless in Port-au-Prince, but also the tens of thousands of rural families that are hosting relatives who fled the capital and are now living in very crowded conditions. Rae will be looking for efficient ways to build temporary housing and house extensions to reduce the stress on families.

"Shelter is—and will remain for a while—a huge, huge need," he says.

As for the water and sanitation program in Delmas, says Rae, "I'm confident that the Haitian engineers I helped to train will be able to carry it forward."

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