By Jean H Charles
I was speaking recently with Charles (Baby) St Remy, the father of the first Lady of Haiti, who is running to become senator of his state, Artibonite. Inquiring as to what he sees as the most important need of his catchment areas, he told me without hesitation: water or the lack thereof. On a trip to the south of Haiti recently, stopping on the top of the mountain at Toumassain, leading to the beautiful town of Port-Salut, where the giant apricots abound, I asked the merchants what is their biggest concern in the area. The answer came clear and neat: water. They have to go to a long distance to fetch fresh water.
In the most recent Sunday Magazine of the New York Times, a long article about a group of IT entrepreneurs/cum philanthropists led by Scott Harrison the story was again helping to solve the problem of water in a small country of Africa: Ethiopia, the former Abyssinia.
It has dawned on me that water is the salt of the earth. Without clean and fresh water for drinking, without abundant water for food security, and without water for the production of cheap energy, the world is losing its salt and as such life is teetering away and misery become the lot of many.
It was not as such; I remember some 50 years ago, water was abundant and fresh in my native country of Haiti. Grand River that gave my home town its name, Grande Riviere du Nord, was mighty and reverend at the same time. From time to time, or rather once a year, it would leave its bed to wander around the edge of the city. But there was plenty of guava, and cashew trees to stop its wandering away. As it came back to its bed, Grand River left a residue of fresh humus to enrich the land that gave a boost to produce such as masenbelle and taillot that was plentiful and almost free for the taking.
Water in Haiti and in the rest of the world is as precious, maybe more precious than petroleum. Yet roughly 72% of the planet’s surface is covered with water, albeit virtually all salt water. The quantity of fresh water is only 2.5% and only 1% of fresh water is accessible for direct human consumption. As such, Scott Harrison and his gang of philanthropists are on to something that may be crucial in particular to the underdeveloped countries. His organization named charity: water, has so far drilled 8,217 wells, with the support of 22 charity partners in 20 countries.
The problem of water is less visible in the developed world. In a city of 10 million people like New York City, tap and potable water is available round the clock for the population. Commercial studies have even proved that the tap water offered to the public in New York is preferable than the water sold in bottles at the stores and the supermarkets. Haiti, a nation of 10 million people, has very few cities with the capacity of providing potable water to the citizens. It was only recently that the city of Petit Goave has been designated as the only city in the country with potable water. Jacmel will be online in 2014. At this rate, it will take more than a century to bring clean and portable water to the 150 towns of the republic.
The capital, Port au Prince, as well as the second city, Cape Haitian, does not have drinking water readily available. The city of Cape Haitian, with a population of half a million people, has even been living without running water (potable or not) for the past 40 years.
DINEPA, the new state institution, with the support of the Spanish government, has the mission of providing fresh water to the population. It is embroiled in a structurally conflicting vision. This story will paint the state of state of the water situation in Haiti.
Some 20 years ago, I introduced to the country an investor ready and willing to buy the Welsh plant, a sugar refinery in the northern part of the country. He was also willing to help the city of Port au Prince get fresh and clean water to the citizens. His initiative ran counter to the denizen of the bottled water company that had powerful friends in power at that time. The offer was dead at birth.
The United Nations, with the stamp of the Haitian government, is seeking funding to spare Haiti from a deficit in food security. A mountainous country, Haiti is the best example of a nation that can accumulate its rain water to be used with the help of physics to produce electricity, to irrigate the fields, and to provide refined water to its rural population. I have observed in the western part of Haiti, from April to November, the rain comes hard and strong, almost every night. Holding some of that rainwater through ramps along the mountainous roads will suffice to render Haiti fully secure in electricity and in food production.
Why it is not done is part of the world problem of a skewed vision that sends armadas of bottled water from Europe to America for consumption because it is fashionable to do so. It is that same skewed vision, pregnant with corruption, that denies the ordinary citizen of the underdeveloped world the right to fresh water even when there is the possibility to do so at a reasonable price.
Water will remain the alpha and the omega of all economic development. The will to solve that problem will indicate whether governments are really interested in the welfare of their people. In the meantime, anyone with Scott Harrison’s number on his rolodex or notepad let me know; maybe I can convince him and his gang of IT moguls to plan their next trip to Haiti after Abyssinia (Ethiopia). It is as mountainous as Ethiopia, with the same rural population that needs paved roads, electricity, toilets, fresh water and security in food production. The experience will be as enriching.
Stopping at any mountain market stands in rural Haiti sends you back to the Middle Ages and bringing that segment of the population into the 21st century through one’s own personal effort, as they now have water for regular use, is as illuminating as the epiphany of Saul converted into Paul or Scott Harrison, the disk jockey, and the party promoter muted into a world class philanthropist!