In Haiti, guarding families from cholera with local water treatment product

LEOGANE, Haiti, 22 December 2011 – “My children only drink treated water,” said Celie Bien Aime, in Leogane, Haiti. “When they go to their friends’ houses, they don’t drink the water there.”

As Ms. Bien Aime knows, treating water saves lives. She works for Deep Springs International (DSI), a small non-governmental organization and UNICEF partner that makes a local water treatment product, Gadyen Dlo – Haitian creole for ‘water guardian’.

DSI has produced Gadyen Dlo since 2002, with the goal of proving the product could be made and distributed cheaply for rural household use. The organization hoped the Haitian private sector would eventually take over, but production remained modest until a deadly and debilitating cholera outbreak struck in 2010.

Cholera is caused by a bacterium that Gadyen Dlo kills with just a few minutes’ worth of treatment.

After the start of the outbreak, the government’s water agency DINEPA (Direction Nationale de L’Eau Potable et de l’Assainissment) expressed interest in Gadyen Dlo’s national potential.

Increased local production

“The cholera outbreak really hit home the need for chlorine, and especially locally produced chlorine,” said Michael Ritter, co-founder, CEO and national program officer of DSI. Production of Gadyen Dlo is now surging; it is ten-fold what it once was, Mr. Ritter says.

The epidemic reached a second peak during the onset of this year’s rainy season. By early July, over 5,500 deaths and 380,000 cholera cases were recorded. Diarrhoea is one of the leading causes of death among children under age five in Haiti, and chronic or repeated sufferers can become malnourished and vulnerable to other illnesses.

To fight back, UNICEF and partners have been distributing chlorine treatment supplies such as Aquatabs. “But,” said Mark Henderson, UNICEF water, sanitation and hygiene chief, “we were creating a demand we couldn’t ensure could be sustainably met.”

Gadyen Dlo is helping to fill that gap.

DSI has gone from producing a barrel or so a week to producing 35,000 bottles a week. In Port-au-Prince, DINEPA is stocking up on 500,000 bottles purchased by UNICEF. And Mr. Ritter hopes to create even more demand by increasing distribution in three neglected departments in northern Haiti.

“Gadyen Dlo does the same thing as the Aquatabs but is locally produced and provides jobs,” Mr. Ritter said. “You don’t have to worry about supply problems or customs.”

Keeping families safe

DSI still hopes that a private company will eventually take over production. The equipment is not prohibitively expensive, costing tens of thousands of dollars rather than hundreds of thousands, Mr. Ritter adds.

DSI’s factory is located in a house; production takes place in what may have once been a laundry room. Numbers flash on wall-mounted machines. Eight large electrodes are immersed in bubbling barrels, turning the carefully measured salt – sodium chloride – and water into sodium hypochlorite. A pipe funnels the chemical into tanks. Each batch is pH-stabilized and tested to ensure the product is properly concentrated.

DSI sells ‘Gadyen Dlo’ in Leogane through a network of 150 health workers, who buy and sell it for 50 Gourdes (about US$1.25) a bottle, enough to treat 37 five-gallon buckets – treating an average family’s water supplies for a month and a half.

Louine Enose buys Gadyen Dlo for her family of seven children. “They’ve never had diarrhoea since I have been treating the water,” she said.