Water in Kadlon Haiti, A Success Story

It was after midnight in Petit Trou de Nippes, Haiti.  I was wide awake.  It wasn’t the barking dogs or six-day old glaze of sweat keeping me up. It was questions.  Most engineers have experienced this flood of questions after working long and hard to meet a deadline.  “Should I have elevated that masonry wall in my final drawings?  Did I miss any code provisions for Seismic Design Category D?” The questions that night were along the lines of, “Can a siphon work with so much air in the system? Will the cistern walls blow out once the water has risen above the hole we placed through the side of it?  Did I effectively communicate how to repair the PVC?”

The next morning we would find out whether or not the system we designed and built over the last 3 days would actually work, with an entire village watching in anticipation. If it didn’t work, we would not be there to fix it because our CO team was leaving at noon for the long drive back to Port au Prince.

The design of this system began in January 2013, on my last trip to this region of Haiti. I went to the community of Kadlon and it is about a half hour drive from St. Paul’s campus into the mountains. Water is accessed by wells and springs that are sparse.  There is an open market every Thursday that takes over an hour to walk to from Kadlon and is the only consistent resource for goods other than what Mother Nature provides.

During last year’s visit to this area, community leaders showed us a cistern they built around a natural mountain spring on the hillside above the village. They dug a hole at the spring in order to allow the clay soils to contain the naturally flowing water so they could dip their buckets into it.  They gathered what little money they had and built a concrete cylinder around this hole that rose above the ground about four feet to allow for containment of even more water.

Access to water, solved.  Access to clean water, not so much.

When using this cistern, people would set their extra buckets down on the ground.  Eventually, the buckets that sat on the ground would be dipped into the water.   Horses and donkeys were often brought to the cistern to help carry back the water and were also allowed to drink the spilled water.  The animals would also use this opportunity to go to the bathroom.   Needless to say, the water buckets had more than just dirt on them and an extremely unhealthy situation was brewing.

Cleaner water could be obtained by walking to the closest well, which was not that close.  However, the opportunity for clean water existed right there in Kadlon.  In this context, it was worth everyone’s effort to try and solve the issue and create yet another clean water source for the area.

The community wanted to be able to access this cistern water without the need to dip buckets into it.  The water would stay clean for longer and thereby improve the health of their community. Their idea was to have a pipe running from the cistern to a downhill location in the village and the end would have a spigot. They also wanted a lid that could lock so that people would not be able to access the water the old way.  This idea was simple and appeared to be feasible.

Calculations were made, details were discussed, availability of materials was considered, budgets created, and we had a plan going to Haiti in January 2014.  On Thursday, January 23rd, our group of 6 (three CHP board members and three women faculty from Old Dominion University) arrived in Port au Prince and drove to Petit Trou to join the rest of our group of about ten people.  My primary task for the next  five days was to implement the clean water system in Kadlon.

On Friday morning, I gathered our translator Mario, our mason Erold, Sharon Caulfield, Jean Donald (well technician for the region), a car, and drove to Kadlon.  Along the way we picked up a gentleman named Jerome who is the Azek (elected leader) for this area.  Upon arriving in Kadlon, and after some introductions, the first task was to find a proper location for a structure (tiyo) to be built that would house the spigot.  We used a tape measure, mason’s line, and a line level.  Once the location was found, we had the landowner, mayor, and witnesses sign an agreement to be filed with the town clerk/recorder (if they could be found) and copies given to community leaders.  In this agreement it was stated that the landowner could not charge people money for the water and the landowner accepted a structure built on their land for the benefit of the whole community.  We used GPS coordinates to give the exact location, everyone signed, and we were on our way to building the system.

We laid out the trench where the PVC pipe would be buried that went from the cistern to the spigot structure.  I told them they could start digging the trench and they got to work right away.  We also needed materials for concrete work (sand and rock) and they would work on gathering those materials before we returned.  We said we’d be back on Sunday ready to work.

The next task was to get the rest of the materials needed.  On Saturday after a feast and celebration in Petit Trou, we drove about two hours back to the state capitol, Miragoane, where we expected that all of our materials could be purchased.  The plan was to build this system out of metal pipe based on its durability.  We drove around to different shops and residences for a couple hours with no luck finding the parts that were needed.  Since it was Saturday, stores were quickly closing and the stores would be closed the next day as well.  I made the decision to switch to PVC as those parts seemed to be readily available.  We needed to be working all day Sunday and Monday and could not afford to spend another day looking for parts.  Mario also informed me that he would be able to find parts for PVC in the village (PTDN) if we needed something.  We returned to St. Paul’s Saturday night with most of the parts we needed to get started.  We still needed cement and block, which we would be able to purchase in the village the next morning.

After breakfast Sunday morning, we drove into town to get the block and cement.  This is where I began to understand how invaluable it was to have Mario as our translator.  He was much more than a translator as he knew everyone in the area and was able to get all the parts we needed throughout the work of the project.  As opposed to driving two hours to Miragoane for everything we forgot or had to modify during construction, we only needed to travel about 10 minutes.  Considering that my own projects at home average about three trips to Home Depot, Mario was quite an asset.

When we arrived in Kadlon late Sunday morning, the trench was dug, but not finished.  We checked the grading of the trench and directed them to dig further.  Erold immediately began working on the podium.  I had this really nice sketch of exactly how the rebar was placed, and the dimensions of the podium.  I asked if he understood it (through Mario) and the response was always “no problem”.  We went over the sketch at least 4 times to the point that I could tell they were getting annoyed with me; Mario with the repetitive translation and Erold with me telling him how to do his job.  Then he built something completely different.  It wasn’t wrong…just different than I would have done it.  He mixed the cement, sand, and water to be used as mortar between stacked rocks.  This is something we’d call a “rubble” foundation and is common in Haiti.  The rocks were taken from the nearby hillside and so was the sand.  This structure he built was about 1.5 feet tall, no rebar.  When I noticed no rebar, I quickly pulled out my hacksaw, cut some to length, and showed him where I wanted it placed. He said “no problem” so I went ahead to the cistern to work on the uphill side of things.  The piece of rebar I cut was the only piece that made it into the foundation.  I shrugged and trusted Erold’s judgment and moved on.  I didn’t realize it then, but this was the first of many of these hybrid portions of the project – we had a design, and they had a way they did things.  What was built was something in between.  No problem.

Sunday and Monday were long hard days of manual labor and driving on 4wd roads. We got parts, continued digging, connected PVC, climbed into the cistern, gathered rock and sand, modified portions of the design, etc. After sitting in front of a desk 40 hours a week for ten years, it felt great to end the day tired and dirty after long hours of manual labor…then get a cold shower.

The idea behind the siphon system was that water would be pulled up from the bottom of the cistern and then flow downhill to the spigot.  The system was designed to act as a siphon through a series of ball valves at the top.  The other way to get the water to the spigot is through gravity flow.  But this would require us to dig a trench to the bottom of the cistern, which was far too deep.  This siphon system also allowed for easier access to the PVC pipes if something were to break.  We could not rely on a pump or electricity, it had to be all natural.

After my restless sleep Monday night, we went to Kadlon Tuesday morning to test the system.  Sharon Caulfield and Mike Earnest came to help as well.  I was on the cistern side and Mike and Sharon were on the spigot side.  We all went over the plan together and understood how this was going to work.  I started by pouring water into the system near the cistern thereby charging the downhill side of the pipe.  The spigot valve was closed and the valve leading to the cistern was also closed (see sketch below).  I asked Mario to tell everyone to gather their buckets near the faucet because once we opened the valves, I did not want to close them until I was sure water was being pulled up from the bottom of the cistern.  Mike and Sharon oversaw that part of the process.

With the men up at the cistern and the village women and children, buckets in hand, eagerly waiting at the spigot, we closed the valve where water was being poured in, opened all the other valves except the one nearest the cistern, then took a deep breath.  Once we opened the last valve,  I could hear the water running through the pipe near the cistern, so I knew it was pulling water up and sending it down the pipe.  An excited, happy conversation broke out down at the spigot – water was spilling into their buckets.

We then drained the system so Yves (the village leader in Kadlon) could show us that he knew how to recharge it before we left.  After a few minor questions, they got it to work.  One of the best parts of the whole project was watching this.  It wasn’t just Yves charging the system by himself.  He had three or four other men that had been intently watching the entire time that were there to help him.  If one person was confused, sure enough there would be someone there that knew the answer.  This meant they really cared and were taking ownership in the project.  It was great to see them work together and figure out a problem as a group.

It was the dry season and water was flowing very slowly from the spring into the cistern.  The flow of water out was much greater than the flow going in.  I explained to them that the system was primarily useful during the rainy season when the flow into the cistern was much greater and could keep up with the amount of water people were taking out.  They offered an alternate solution.  They would lock the lid to the cistern (the lid was part of this project) and allow it to fill up for two days at a time during the dry season. The lid we built made sure that no one could get water the old way without permission from the people holding the keys.  This meant clean water.

After all our work and worry, we celebrated. We  shared freshly gathered coconuts, drinking the warm milk and eating the sweet meat. Congratulatory speeches were made.  We had hugs all around and took lots of pictures. Then we left.  The ride back to Port au Prince that day was great.  After many days of hard work, mentally and physically, to know we left the people of Kadlon with a project that worked and would benefit the whole community was a great feeling.


Techincal picture Nic's drawing of process