Los Cacaos, 02 February 2012 — Two years after an earthquake struck Haiti, Los Cacaos has demonstrated what happens when neighbours work together to solve a problem.
Catholic nuns based across the Artibonite river in San Francisco of Banica Parish in the Dominican Republic organised the project in consultation with community leaders. Jesuit Refugee Service USA provided 113,000 US dollars to fund the project, and members of the community supplied the labour to build roads, construct cisterns and lay miles of plastic pipe and tubing.
Fresh, clean water is now available to 700 families, thanks to their commitment to build a foundation for long-term improvements.
"We had 11 brigades of 25 to 32 people each working on the project. They carried sand and cement to places where trucks could not reach. They carried these things over the hills to the source of the water", said Wilens Thomas, of Los Cacaos.
"Before the project I would send the kids to get water, it would take them half a day or more. Sometimes the water would spill on the return trip and they'd have to go back", said community resident Olise, a father of five.
Olise's comment highlighted an additional benefit of the cisterns: children who were before engaged in trekking for hours to water sources now can concentrate on attending school within the safety of their communities.
"This project proclaims a bright future because all different age groups are involved. And I don't want to leave out the work the women have done, they have done a great deal of work for this project", said Sr Refugio Chavez.
This community-based participative model for humanitarian aid delivery and development has had the dual role of providing necessary resources for the health of the community while strengthening the role of women in the decision-making processes and empowering them to take an active role in the development projects.
Promoting development, discouraging migration
Prior to the January 2010 earthquake, the Los Cacaos area was home to more than 8,700 people. Subsequently, the area became a transit point for many displaced families trying to migrate to the Dominican Republic and the population soared to at least 16,000.
"One of our goals is that the project become self-sustaining", Sr Refugio said.
"We hope the project becomes completely integrated with education, health, improved agriculture and food security. There is a hope Los Cacaos, one of the poorest places in Haiti, can show the country and the world it has gotten on its feet and started moving. The way to improve their lives, the resources to make changes exist right here and they don't have to go to the Dominican Republic", she said.
After cholera struck the community in October 2010, the nuns spoke to area residents and learned about the difficulty of obtaining fresh, clean, water. A plan was devised to pipe water from high in the hills down to the populated areas, where it is filtered, stored in cisterns and then piped to homes and community centres.
One cistern holds 50,000 gallons of water and a second holds 25,000 gallons. The project directly benefits about 450 families in the El Corte area around the first cistern, and another 250 families in the area around the second cistern.
"The project took a lot of work. We had to carry sand and concrete up the hills", said Enila who lives with her husband Alcen in the El Corte community. Their lives have changed dramatically since the water started flowing to their modest home.
"Before the water was piped in we had to hike up to the river, collect it in big gallon jugs and bring it back and boil it to use it. We had to dedicate a lot of time to getting water, and now we are able to do other things. More importantly, our health is much better now, we feel much better", she said.
The water also allows people to grow crops year-round, rather than just during the rainy season.
"We have been able to grow plantains and fruits. We grow food for ourselves, and some for sale. Or we trade it for soap, cooking oil and charcoal", said Enila.
Enila and others noted that several times in the past, outside groups have arrived in the community promising improvements, only to leave without changing anything.
"Before, people thought there would never be water and for that reason some did not work on the project", she said.
"We carried sand and looked for the best stones to build the tank with", said Vetlana, who has lived in the Los Cacaos community for all of her 70 years.
Those families who did not work on the initial phase of the project are being invited to join now.
"They have the chance to work with us by planting trees and bushes up by the source of the water. This will keep the water clean", said local coordinator, Wilens.
Re-planting and recovering the environment will also mitigate the effects of tropical storms, as new trees and plants take root in the mountains and deter erosion.
The irrigation system gives local farmers a steady supply of water for their fields, and enables local residents to have community and family gardens and gardens to grow their own food; these efforts work towards restoring the livelihood of the community.
In addition to improved physical health, Sr Refugio noticed other changes in the community as well.
"The first big change is the change in self-esteem. People here now feel valued, that they are taken seriously as people. That our work is not to just have them have their hand out asking for things, that it is to work together as a team. They have water and better health, but they also feel better as people", she said.
"I think the Jesuit Refugee Service has had a crucial role in this project. The partnership: the economic support, our role as facilitators and the role of the community, has allowed us to see the joy of the people", Sr Refugio said.
"These communities have benefitted enormously from the project, and this can be an example to Haiti and the rest of the world to see how a water project can enhance people's lives", said Wilens.
"We are thankful to God and the people who worked on the project who helped us get clean water. Please keep thinking about us", said Enila.