Article and photos by Sam Vigersky
It’s 8:00 AM in Port-au-Prince and the thermometer reads 92 degrees. Julie Longpré, a civil engineer working in water and sanitation for PAHO/WHO doesn’t seem bothered. When she arrives at the Penguin Water Center a dozen noisy trucks idle in lines, waiting their turn to fill-up with chlorinated water for delivery to hundreds-of-thousands of people living in settlement sites. “This is one of the best parts of my job,” she says, preparing to take water samples by emptying her pockets of anything that can’t get wet and grabbing three glass jars.
Julie approaches a truck and tells the driver she needs a sample, and with permission, carefully ascends a ladder until reaching the roof nine feet up. With feet planted, she extends her arm and the glass jar clasped in her hand suddenly disappears in a torrent of water rushing from the pipe above towards the trucks hull. In 90 seconds, three water samples are taken and Julie has managed to become soaking wet. “Working in the field is definitely fun. Especially when you can get wet on a hot day!” The water collected on this day will be analyzed at the THW (German Federal Agency for Technical Relief) laboratory.
These small samples are an important part of the elaborately choreographed system that brings together the Haitian Government, UN agencies and NGOs. The result is delivery of 4.2 million liters of clean drinking water every day – a major success considering Port-au-Prince’s notorious traffic jams and ever shrinking boulevards from rubble spilling into the streets. PAHO/WHO assists DINEPA (the National Direction for Potable Water and Sanitation) with chlorination by providing HTH (High-Test Hypochlorite) to water trucks at filling stations. This chlorination process kills bacteria, which left untreated, can cause disease outbreaks like watery diarrhea and gastrointestinal illness in crowded settlement sites. The samples taken by Julie help determine whether the levels are safe enough for drinking.
Beyond regular sampling Penguin, PAHO/WHO and THW are supporting the government in their efforts to establish a water quality monitoring laboratory within the Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources Laboratory at Tamarinier. The laboratory will provide analysis of samples for monitoring and outbreak control. Vendors will also be able to have their water certified as being potable. “The ability of the government to analyze water samples is essential for health promotion and disease prevention activities,” noted Sally Edwards, a PAHO/WHO advisor in Sustainable Development and Environmental Health. “The monitoring laboratory will be a major achievement in the delivery of clean water.”
Sampling at distribution centers is important, but to ensure the product is safe, monitoring continues once water is transferred from trucks to settlement sites. Here, problems can arise from contamination if there is no residual chlorine on site. At some sites, water is stored in a reservoir where people often place dirty buckets inside which can contaminate the whole source. PAHO/WHO, as a member of the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) Cluster led by UNICEF, has been working with a technical group to develop Water Quality Guidelines for monitoring of water quality on site. The guidelines help NGOs managing chlorine levels, offer hygiene promotion to prevent the spread of disease, and ensure testing is done from source to site. Finally, development of a Water Safety Plan for more sustainable management of water resources in Haiti is being written. These collaborative efforts, in both the present and future, will help increase the amount of safe water throughout the country.