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A water turnaround in Haiti

Before the project started in 2008, Saint Marc had running water for nine hours a week, at best. At present service is up to 10 hours a day—the highest average in any urban area in Haiti.

Naturally, the ultimate goal is to reach 24/7 service throughout the network in this seaside town of 120,000, about 100 kilometers northwest of Port-au-Prince. It will not happen overnight, but there are other encouraging signs: between October 2010 and September 2011 its water utility collected an average $37,000 a month from clients, about 18 times more than it used to take in a month before the project was completed in 2009.

The turnaround of Saint Marc's water services could serve as an example for other Haitian towns and cities seeking alternatives to build, manage and maintain reliable and sustainable public services. Saint Marc was the first of five mid-size urban areas to complete an IDB-financed expansion program launched in 2003. Work in Port-de-Paix, on the northern coast, is scheduled to finish this year. Les Cayes in the south, Jacmel in the southeast and Ouanaminthe, on the border with the Dominican Republic, are at different stages of execution.

Saint Marc’s case is all the more remarkable given the tough circumstances it has faced over the past year. The town is close to the rural valley where the cholera epidemic started late in 2010. Many of the first victims were brought to its hospital, which was quickly overwhelmed, as Haiti had never faced an outbreak of this nature.

Facing up to the challenge, with assistance from DINEPA, the national water and sanitation regulating agency, the local utility reinforced water chlorination. In line with the Haitian government’s campaign to combat the quickly spreading disease, it also distributed treated water in trucks and soap.

Saint Marc also stands out because its water system is managed by a private sector operator, SESAM, a French acronym for Societé des Eaux de Saint Marc. SESAM is the Haitian affiliate of a medium-size French company, LYSA, which has a 15-year contract to operate the system, awarded under a 2009 law to decentralize the management of water services.

SESAM has shattered several myths about the participation of private sector companies in the water sector, starting with the fact that it now has more staff than when the service was run by a government agency, which had a single plumber for the entire town. The utility not only kept on the original employees but raised salaries, introduced performance bonuses and intensified training. Of the 40 people on the payroll, only two are foreigners.

The company has wisely cultivated close ties to the community. Before it took on the task of running the network, SESAM held dozens of public meetings to inform local residents about their plans. Its administrator, Jean-Claude Nicholas, stars in a cable television program on water service issues, taking questions from viewers. The town's mayor apparently has him on speed dial. "I'm like a one-man call center," the administrator quips.

SESAM is also serious about billing and collections, a common weakness among Haitian utilities. Although it has been in charge of Saint Marc's water system for little over two years, the company is proving that clients will pay for decent service.

SESAM developed software to track water usage and payments, giving DINEPA full ownership of the program to use it in other cities. When clients fall two months behind on bills they get a warning letter demanding prompt payment, or service is disconnected.

The utility has come up with other creative ways to boost revenues. In an outlying community called McDonald a committee of local residents reads meters and collects payments in exchange for a percentage of the revenue. Its recovery rate is among the highest in the system.

Recalling that people in Saint Marc were skeptical when he first spoke about expansion plans, Monsieur Nicholas says clients are seeing with their own eyes that SESAM is renovating the town’s ageing water mains in the city's center.

The utility still has plenty of work ahead to reach its financial and technical goals, including legacy problems such as decaying pipes and difficulties such as getting spare parts, which can take months to arrive. But if work continues apace, next year it could become the first Haitian city with 24/7 water service.

“On its face, this would be a remarkable achievement, but this is a pilot experience,” said IDB water and sanitation senior specialist Sarah Matthieussent Romain. “It will take time to stabilize and a lot of effort to expand the new service to a majority of the population in Saint Marc. Eventually, it could yield valuable lessons for other operators in Haiti.”