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A small price to pay

GOMIER, Haiti – Danette François used to walk 30 minutes to fetch water from a well in this seaside village. The water was free but brackish and untreated. Her children often fell ill. She now spends a few minutes each day to fill a 5-gallon bucket of chlorinated water, paying a community-established fee of one gourde— the equivalent of two cents.

“The price? It’s really cheap, like a gift,” said François, who has five children between the ages of 10 and 4. “I’m happy. My kids are not getting sick.”

Gomier is one of 15 rural towns and villages in Grand’ Anse, a department on the western end of Haiti’s southern peninsula, where DINEPA, the national water and sanitation agency, is developing sustainable community-managed water distribution systems. The Inter-American Development Bank and the Spanish Water Fund are providing $25 million in grants for similar investments in rural communities in Grand’ Anse and three other departments, Nippes in the southwest, Artibonite in the central region and Ouest, particularly in the island of La Gonave.

While local management is a fundamental aspect of the program, the key lies in achieving long-term sustainability, so the community systems can continue to operate and expand after the initial push. Many a well-intentioned project has foundered because sponsors overlooked the costs associated with maintenance and physical depreciation.

Gomier, for instance, had four wells drilled with a grant from an NGO back in 2005, but since the water was brackish, those who could afford the expense would buy fresh water trucked in from other towns.

The village, home to about 2,000 people, now has four kiosks where chlorinated water is dispensed several hours a day (typically early in the morning and late in the afternoon, when children are not in school and are traditionally tasked with fetching water).

Since Gomier’s new system started operating in December 2010, 14 individual home connections with water meters have also been installed. Although these cost 2,000 gourdes (roughly $50, paid in monthly installments) there is a growing demand for metered service, said Taylor Exantus, a DINEPA official overseeing the program in Grand’ Anse.

Cherie Serrete, who has no school-age children in her household, opted for a home connection. In the past she would pay neighbors to fetch water for her. She now pays a flat rate of 50 gourdes per 1,000 liters, which is only slightly more per gallon than water bought at the kiosk.

A portion of the fee, which was established by Gomier’s water commission, goes to a savings account to pay for future investments in the community’s water system. A smaller portion goes to DINEPA, which supervises the decentralized water systems. The rest of the revenue goes to pay the persons who tend the water kiosks, to cover the local commission’s administrative expenses, and to compensate a key figure: the system’s operator.

In Gomier, that role is filled by François Charles Fils, a strapping young man. Every day he rides his motorcycle to the village’s 25-cubic meter tank to fill it up with water piped in from a source higher up in the surrounding mountains. Once the tank is filled, he mixes powdered chlorine in a bucket and treats the collected water.

Running the water system is not an easy job, Charles confides. It requires leadership, dynamism and not insignificant stamina, as the hike to the source can take more than one hour, often under a scorching sun. “And you have to deliver good quality water,” he adds.

The operator assures that Gomier is a model for other communities. This is not an empty boast. The nearby town of Roseaux initially chose not to participate in the community-managed project, as its authorities were reluctant to charge for the service. According to Exantus, people from Roseaux are now buying treated water from the kiosks in Gomier and the town’s mayor is revisiting the idea.

Coupled with an intensive cholera-awareness campaign carried out by the Haitian Ministry of Public Health and DINEPA, the chlorinated water delivered by the new system helped keep the toll of the disease at very low levels in Gomier, which registered only two non-fatal cases between November and April.

Looking five years ahead, Charles sees the water system growing in Gomier. They will need another tank, as people with home connections tend to consume more water. Exantus noted that the highway that runs through the village, once a rutted track, is being graded and paved. “It will bring more people to live here because it’s less crowded—and because there is good water,” he added.

Rapid urbanization is likely to turn sanitation a more pressing issue. At present, most people in Gomier do as they have always done: they use their otherwise spectacular beach as an open-air restroom. Under DINEPA’s program, latrines are being installed in the local school, a first step in a gradual process of changing deep-seated habits.

“The experience DINEPA has gained over the past few years in Grand’ Anse using this new approach— charging for service, empowering local committees, delegating operation and maintenance, and strengthening supervision—will serve as a basis for sustainable services in other rural areas of Haiti,” said Sarah Matthieussent Romain, senior water and sanitation specialist at the IDB.

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