Haiti Rewired: Sasha Kramer in Haiti

By Mara Gay, Haiti Rewired, November 17, 2010

Even before the country’s first cholera epidemic in more than six decades began to creep its way across the struggling country, leaving sickness and fear behind in a land that needed neither, Sasha Kramer knew that sanitation in Haiti was a matter of life and death.

Kramer, an adjunct professor of International Studies at the University of Miami, moved to Haiti in 2004, and has spent years advocating a real sanitation system for Haiti, a necessity Kramer calls a “basic human right.”

In 2006, she co-founded SOIL, (Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods), a non-profit that promotes environmental justice.

Even before the earthquake, the situation was dire. A lack of adequate sanitation infrastructure meant that raw sewage had always found its way into Haiti’s water supply, ensuring that diarrhea remained the leading cause of death for children under the age of five. Cholera, of course, has only added to the urgency of her message.

It hasn’t gotten much better since the earthquake. In SOIL’s July newsletter, Kramer described a scene at the TK city dump so foul that the stench seemed to fly off the webpage.

“Sometimes we notice the ever growing piles of rubble that spill out into the street as people carefully clear out their houses. The city dump is expanding beyond its capacity as new trucks and equipment bring in daily loads of rubble, trash and sewage,” she wrote. “The problem is so large that when looking out from the inside, change is nearly imperceptible.”

And yet, Kramer says, change is possible, necessary, and happening, if slowly. She spoke with Haiti Rewired to explain why sanitation is a human right, and talk about the innovative projects SOIL is been doing to help bring a modern sewage system to Haiti.

HR: Let’s be frank. Haiti has a lot of problems. Why focus on poo?

SK: I’d been working in Haiti since 2004 when it occurred to me that the most prevalent human rights abuse was really poverty and the fact that people didn’t have adequate access to sanitation. People were struggling.

HR: How big, exactly, is the human waste problem in the Haiti’s cities and camps?

SK: Well, it was ginormous before the earthquake. Haiti was the country that had the lowest sanitation coverage in the western hemisphere, or really, in the world.

HR: And now?

SK: More people have access now but the situation is pretty similar. I don’t think it’s improved dramatically at all. It’s not something to pat ourselves on the back over or be proud of.

HR: Are there toilets in the camps?

SK: In many of the camps, you have up to 200 people per day sharing a toilet.

HR: That seems like a lot of people for one toilet.

SK: There should be 20 people per toilet.

HR: So where is the sewage going now?

SK: After the earthquake, the government scrambled to find a legal dumping site. They settled on the city dump near Cite Soleil. It was supposed to be temporary, but they’ve been dumping sewage there since January. We [SOIL] go out there every two weeks or so. It’s a little hard to tell what the hold up is, really.

HR: How have things changed since the cholera epidemic began?

SK: With all this news about cholera, there’s now a movement in the communities surrounding the dump to shut it down [the dump]. They’re planning a demonstration to block the road into the dump, which is a main road in Port-au-Prince. My fear was that the sewage trucks might go elsewhere and just dump wherever. But the demonstrators managed to win me over. They said they needed to bring attention to the problem. And I agree.

HR: What’s the biggest consequence or health risk of untreated sewage?

SK: Right now, cholera. Most other diseases don’t spread as quickly as cholera will. But in Haiti, already, diarrhea is the leading cause of death in children under the age of five.

HR: SOIL processes 5,000 gallons of poo per week. That’s a stinky feat. How do you do it?

SK: Our toilets separate the urine and the feces. Each time somebody poops, you cover it with sawdust. We also use sugarcane bagasse, which helps with the smell from the urine.

HR: The material from SOIL’s toilets can help fertilize Haiti’s farmland, no?

SK: Yes. Instead of polluting the water with nitrogen [from sewage], the goal is to find ways to give it back to the soil, which is severely depleted in Haiti.

HR: How many working toilets does SOIL have?

SK: 200. We would like to share our plans with NGOs and then run the composting sites for them as contractors. The second step is to start building household toilets for people. They’d pay a very small fee to have the drum collected. We treat it and use the fertilizer to maintain the compost site. Then the fertilizer can be sold to farmers.

HR: That sounds expensive.

SK: It’s less expensive than elevated latrines, which is what they’re using now.

HR: Looking forward 10 years, what are the prospects that Port-au-Prince will have a modern sewage system and water treatment facilities in Haiti?

SK: It should be possible. It absolutely should be possible for the city of Port-au-Prince to have a sewage system. But it’s unlikely. The time to do it would be now. The problem is that most cities in the United States built theirs when the city itself was being built up. Now Haiti would have to tear up all the roads and put sewers underneath them. I don’t see it happening. I’m skeptical that it will happen in the next 10 years.

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