Sunday, February 9, 2014

Jammin moto taxi's in rural Haiti

My preferred mode of travel in Haiti is motorcycle taxis.  They're everywhere, faster than a car, cheap and can go where cars can't.  On a recent trip to Haiti I was tasked with doing a survey of water sources in 4 different communities, each hours apart.  We took a bus to Gonaives but then went to motorcycle taxis.  Buses you have to wait at the station until they are full before you can leave.  This can often take hours.  But where a bus would cost $3 a moto taxi might cost $6 for the same hour journey, still very reasonable.

The moto taxi drivers are often young men with a thirst for travel and adventure.  It amazes me how much they will endure for just a few dollar fare.  The roads are terrible and rattle every joint in your body to exhaustion and beyond. 

Every journey on a moto taxi in Haiti is an adventure.  In Port au Prince you will endure the thrill (or terror) of weaving in and out of traffic.  In the countryside you will experience cow paths at high speeds and river crossings without bridges.  These journeys on moto taxis have become a way of life for me and quite commonplace I guess.  But a recent journey from Petite Riviere de l'Artibonite to St
Michel was an eye-popping adventure of speed, scenery and culture.

My first attempt at capturing the moment was on the video camera on my phone. Then, after a stop I pulled out my camera and switched to video mode.  I'll upload the videos when I get a better internet connection.  For now I'll post a few photos...

Friday, February 7, 2014

A trip to Tibouk

Off the plane in Port au Prince I hopped a moto taxi to the other terminal.  I hopped another plane that took me to Cap Haitien where the journey was just beginning.  I had been asked by an American group to conduct a training in their adopted village in Haiti.  The objective was to teach them how to properly glue PVC pipe and install water meters.  It sounds like a simple and noble task but rarely do things go as planned in Haiti.

I caught a motorcycle into the City and managed to hook up with our pipe and materials on the same truck bound for Ti-Bouk!  Here it is with a most interesting door handle.

We needed a bit of gas to make the last leg of our journey (yep that's the gas tank, an old jug "mounted" under the cab)

We arrived in Tibouk to find that the supply pipelines from both springs had recently been smashed by a government road-building crew.  And since water meters don't work very well without water we changed our focus to fixing one of the supply pipelines.
And actually I didn't have to do much of the teaching on this trip.  I am now blessed with an awesome group of Haitian plumbers that we started in their training but have far surpassed us in their abilities and experience in the nuts and bolts activities of building water systems.  Here is Gidel teaching a local plumber to use primer and glue pipe properly.
Spending a few nights in Ti-bouk was a treat in village life.  Apparently our hosts thought I was the VIP with the heart-decoration on my bedspread - Gidel's bed was not nearly as decked out.

Water meter installed and back on a motorbike taxi to Cap Haitien and then 4-wheeler to Dondon for the night before returning to Port au Prince to manage the construction of a water connection for a new Marriott Hotel.  Life has been a roller coaster of work here in Haiti this past year.  I'll try to keep up with blog posts to keep all of you in the loop!

Sunday, April 28, 2013



I’ve witnessed many, many broken water systems over the years but it seems this trip to Haiti is trying to break some kind of record.  Every single city I’ve visited has a water system.  Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent on each one of them and not one of them is functioning.  Among the cities I’ve visited on this trip are Verrettes, Petite Riviere d’L Artibonite, St Michel, Pignon and Hinche.  The populations of these cities range from 10 to 50,000 people.  They are capital cities, centers of commerce, education and health.  If there should be one place for people to find refuge and infrustructure that works it should be in these cities.

I have spent countless hours on the water systems for Pignon and Hinche.  But neither has a drop of water flowing in them.  The reason… people living near the spring want a highway built to their remote villages so they dug up the pipe and smashed it.  The pipe was repaired and they smashed it again.  It is incomprehensible to me how such a small group of people can be so selfish that they would cut off the water supply to tens of thousands of people just so they can have a smoother, wider road built to their remote villages.

In Verrettes, Petite Riviere and St Michel rural villagers have also sabotaged the water systems to prevent water from reaching the city.  They either smashed holes in the pipe or there are broken water taps at critical low points in the supply pipeline causing all of the pressure to be lost in the system. 

In yet another small village outside of St Michele we witnessed a water system missing just 2 pieces of pipe.  Rather than organize and repair the system at a cost of perhaps $1,000 the entire village of 1,000 plus people hikes over a thousand vertical feet up the mountain to collect and carry every drop of water they need for drinking, bathing and doing laundry.  If repaired the water system would deliver water to a system of public taps a mere stones throw from each of their front doors.

Haiti it seems is so completely messed  up it’s hard to imagine what if any good my work here is doing.  But somewhere deep down I know I’m doing the right thing so I guess I’ll just keep on keeping on. 

Monday, December 10, 2012

Raising expectations

People often ask what I actually do during all these trips to Haiti. I often talk about building this project or that. But with each project I hope I'm raising expectations. Most Haitians don't expect to have water in their homes 24/7. Most Haitians think only the wealthy get a water pipe to their home. Most Haitians don't know that you can also use pipes for a sewer system. When I go to Haiti I use our construction projects to raise the bar and show how we get from the status quo to a higher standard of living. Here's a recap of my most recent trip.

Digicel / Turgeau Well partnership. We visited a great spring in the hills on the southeast side of Port au Prince in the hopes of securing water rights for a client of ours. What we found shocked me, but I guess I should have expected it. Here's a photo of the pumphouse we found at the spring:

To explain, there is a spring that flows out of the mountain nearby. The water flows through a 12-inch pipe down to a concrete reservoir. From there it supplies the Port au Prince water system. However, because of all the leaks there is never enough water in the main system. So in this photo you see 7 private pumps connected to the spring source before the water enters the main system. These private pumps supply water directly to well-to-do private residents.

The root problem here is all the leakage in the Port au Prince water system. I have a dream to divide the city into zones and completely rehabilitate each zone, one at a time with new water, sewer and streets... For now we will attempt to negotiate yet another private tap into this supply for our client.

Hinche Water System. Hinche is a city of 35,000 people that I've been passing through for years wondering why all those public water taps never flowed. Well I finally got my chance to wrap my mind around this problem a few months ago. We conducted a survey and designed new pipes for about half the streets in town as part of a street reconstruction project. I used this project to develop a new method of developing a set of engineering plans that included all of the necessary design information and explained how the project should be managed.


We just conducted a progress meeting where we invited all the government agencies, the road contractor and a Spanish consultant working with the government water ministry. I heard one of the Haitians prior to the meeting say that this was the first time he had attended a meeting during a project. He had previously only heard of pre and post project meetings. The meeting was full of new and great ideas. The officials were engaging, optimistic and willing to work together. A big reason for this is that the meeting was held in Kreyol. Conversely, meetings like this are often held in French which not only intimidates the Haitians but limits their understanding because they are not fluent in French.

Since construction began in September we have installed 25,000 feet of new water pipes in Hinche. My first student, Raynold is the project manager. One of the officials reported a common comment he has heard is "where did you find these guys, they really work fast!". I think this is because Raynold is well educated and education breeds confidence. He knows what to do and we trust him enough to do it himself without much intervention from us. Props to Haiti Outreach for giving the Haitian people this opportunity to perform.

My role is to monitor the quality of construction and teach new methods. My objective this trip was to teach them how to construct a concrete box around each valve. We bought some lumber and built the forms. Then we assembled them and built our first valve box. My student, Gidel picked up fast and was soon thinking of ways to improve the process. That skill alone reminded me that he is a valuable employee. He will go far in his career and I feel fortunate to have a role in it.

James, my boss at Northwater was in Hinche too with his geophysics equipment. The current water source provides 200 gallons per minute. But the city needs at least 1400 gal/min to provide 24/7 water. James did 2 days worth of soundings in search of a groundwater supply. The survey we conducted so far looks good and I think we should be able to put together a good complete water system for Hinche.

With projects now under construction at Hinche, Dondon and Saint Raphael and plans underway for Miasod and a few other smaller projects we are in need of another engineer. There are engineers in Haiti but few are willing to get their hands dirty and work as hard as we ask on these water projects. So the search is on. But if you be the one and are reading this, check out the hands of our current engineer. 

Dondon Water System. This is our latest design project. Dondon is a city of 7,000 people. It has been without water for the last year. But even when water was flowing they only had 20 gal/min to share amongst the entire community. But I recently found a spring high in the mountains that flows over 200 gal/min. My objective this trip was to identify a location to build a water storage reservoir. We found a great place and conducted an abney level survey to verify the location would provide the proper water pressure in town. Within a week or so I should have the plans for this system finalized and with any luck we can begin construction early next year.

Saint Raphael Water System. This was the second water system we constructed in Haiti. The initial construction contract is mostly complete but the Haitian government recently added another 5 kilometers to our project. So I have to develop the plans for it and get them back to Hati Outreach so they can make plans for construction. The first set of plans for this project I remember drawing up during my Thanksgiving holiday break. That was when I had a full time job and did my Haiti work on the weekends. These plans were far less developed and nowhere near the standards we have developed with recent projects. Haiti Outreach gave me the go-ahead on this trip to spend the time to put together a proper plan document.

Miasod. I have a vision for this to be the first city in Haiti with both a piped water and sewer system. It's the first city where I've been given the time to develop such a plan. A Haitian road contractor, SECOSA has surveyed the town and is preparing to reconstruct the streets. I heard they have an AutoCAD drawing with all the information I need to develop the plans. So Friday afternoon I got off the 4-seater airplane that took me to Port au Prince and hired a motorcycle taxi. We dipped and dived at harrowing speeds through the streets of Port au Prince for almost an hour before we arrived at the office where I would get the AutoCAD drawing. 

The guys at SECOSA were happy to see me and give me the plans. They asked, what will you do with these plans? I explained my vision for a piped sewer system. They were all confused that I would propose to send toilet water through pipes. This is what I mean by raising expectations. Even some of the most educated in Haiti are unaware of the possibilities to create infrastructure to sustain a clean and sanitary environment. Back down the mountain, I arrived at the airport just in time to catch my flight. All the way through the ariport nobody said anything. But when I looked in the mirror in the bathroom I looked like a racoon. My face was caked in dirt except for where my glasses covered. It had been raining lightly on my recent journey. The rain and dirt in the air mixed to form mud on my face, he he. I was quite a site.

Until next time...


Saturday, October 20, 2012

Wild search for water

Today began day 4 in a row of hiking through the nastiest jungles and rivers of Haiti in search for more water.  My body was already burnt to a crisp and I was as tired when I woke up this morning as when I went to bed last night.  But I saddled up on the 4-wheeler with Gidel and a pile of survey equipment at 6 AM anyway.  The “road” from Pignon to Miasod could satisfy the hungriest of adventure seekers.  The sun was just rising and a fog hung in the central plateau of Haiti.  Although in a hurry I had to stop and take this picture…
A view across the central plateau at dawn.
We drove down a steep ravine to our first river crossing.  The water rose to just below the seat as we scratched the gravel riverbed to make it to the other side.  It was a hair-raising climb up a 100-yard long steep and rutted incline on the other side.  Thirty minutes later we arrived at our second river crossing.  Upon cresting the hill and seeing the river Gidel responded with an “uh oh”.  Not a good sign.  We both dismounted and surveyed the situation.  Before I knew it he had his pants off, (held over his head to keep them dry) and was floating the 4-wheeler across the river with a hired hand.  It was nearly 80 yards across and 3-4 feet deep.  The water seemed almost as thick as mud it was so full of sediment.  So I followed suit, packed my pants in my bag, held it over my head and walked across.  I was thinking the whole time… oh, the things I do for water in Haiti.
I arrived in Haiti last Tuesday and caught a MAF flight up to Pignon.  I gathered my equipment and caught a ride to Hinche.  Wednesday we walked for 11 hours in search of more water sources to supply the new water system we are building.  We found 6 springs, 2 wells and completed 2 surveys in a day that nearly killed me.  We must have walked close to 15 miles, much of it off trail and up rivers.  Every time I asked if there were any more springs they replied “no more”.  I would point to a river on my map and say there must be a source and we would follow it.  And what do you know but there was usually a spring at the end of it!  But the last river of the day took us into a canyon that narrowed to about 15 feet wide with rock walls rising hundreds of feet on either side.   Walking through the canyon it opened up to a virtual Garden of Eden on the other side.  Oh yeah, found another spring just as we were entering the narrowest part of the canyon… really cool stuff.
Waterfall below the spring at Saltade.
Thursday was spent close to Hinche in search of potential sites to place a river intake and water treatment plant.  I kept walking upstream shaking my head at all the laundry being washed in the river and trying to imagine what kind of treatment process we would need to get all that soap out enough to drink it.  This will certainly be a last resort.
Friday we were off to Dondon again… well almost.  Our 4-wheeler had a clanging sound coming from the under-carriage so Gidel decided not to risk it.  We left the 4-wheeler in Pignon and climbed on a moto-taxi.  The taxi on the way out was a relatively smooth ride with light jazz music playing as the sun rose on another beautiful day in Haiti.  The return taxi was exactly the opposite.  The guy was in a holy terror to break speed records.  He didn’t bother to go around the rocks or potholes.  He just floored it and ran over them.  Early in the ride I nearly bit the end of my tongue off as we hit a bump and my jaw slammed shut.  From then on I kept my tongue pulled back. 

Dondon was the same drill as Hinche, look for more water sources.  We found 2 springs, one too low to flow by gravity to town and the other with not enough water.  They have a great big spring that flows out of a river bank next to town.  As much as it scares me to build a spring cap next to a river it may end up being our only option.  So we located a site for a reservoir on the mountain above the spring and I’ll work on developing a pump and treat option. 
A view of Dondon from the reservoir location.
Gidel, surveying the reservoir location.
Still in Dondon I pointed to a likely location for a spring in a valley just out of town.  Our guide confirmed there is in fact a spring but it’s the Satan spring.  After some wrangling in Kreyol to decifer just what he was talking about I learned that the valley where the spring is located is big into voodoo.  Apparently they sacrifice animals and force them down into the spring as part of voodoo ceremonies.  Finding this story hard to believe I asked someone else not part of the first conversation and they confirmed the story.  Craziness… Haiti is complete craziness.  Sometimes I wonder if they just sit around and think of ways to shock and awe the white guy.
My body is completely spent and I am so happy tomorrow has no plans for crazy hiking in the mountains.  Neil and I will hopefully drive back out to Dondon and check out a spring nearby the road that he knows about.  It’s rainy season though and there is a major river at Saint Raphael we’ll have to cross so the trip may or may not happen depending on what the rains do.  Monday I’ll try to find a ride to Port au Prince and get a little work done there before I fly out on Tuesday.  It’s been another hugely successful trip and I’m starting to get used to the fact that this is my full time job.  It’s like a dream come true.  I see so much potential and need for water here and it feels great to be given the opportunity to do something about it.

So darn cute...

Sunday, August 5, 2012


Haiti has once again reminded me that this is a country of extremes.  I woke up this morning still exhausted from a long weekend of travel and surveying to find a view out my window so spectacular I almost think I’m anywhere but Haiti.  The morning sunrise was dashing across a far off mountain green with recent rains.    How can a country so deforested, so eroded and so dirty also give a scene so completely spectacular as this?

Thursday I hopped a plane in South Dakota bound for Fort Lauderdale.  Upon a midnight arrival in Fort Lauderdale I had exactly 90 minutes of sleep before I was once again off to the airport to catch a 6 AM flight Haiti bound.  I caught another puddle jumper plane from Port au Prince to Pignon and was greeted by Raynold and the most beautiful smile of my adopted son Kiki.  His dad also greeted me and said he had a report card to show me!

Over lunch with Neil we called ahead to where we would be surveying the next day and found out the guys from the government water ministry, DINEPA were there now!  So we bumped up the plans and were strapped to a 4-wheeler careening around busted dirt road corners at a breathtaking pace with about 300 lbs of luggage, weirs and surveying equipment strapped on. 

Raynold was at an engineering seminar in Cap Haitien so his assistant, Gidel was my student for the weekend.  But as it turned out I added 2 to my classroom as the DINEPA guys joined us for the survey!   They seemed intrigued when we showed them the plans from our previous water system on Friday.  They elected to make the 2 hour drive on a Saturday to meet us by 7 AM in Dondon.  We trekked up to the spring and surveyed the 2 miles or so back to town.  I had them running bacteria tests at the spring, measuring the flow, and running both abney and dumpy level surveys.  We usually survey in a rotation so everybody gets a turn at each of the jobs.  But I was soon out of the rotation because they wanted every minute of experience they could get.   It was a great feeling to just walk down the mountain and watch an all-Haitian crew at work.

Surveying with the DINEPA guys

Measuring the spring flow

Gidel ran us ragged from 5:30 AM until 8 PM.  We carried a survey line in from 3 different springs and cris-crossed the town too!  The plan was to survey Saturday and Sunday but I think he had pressure from home to be back for church Sunday morning and I wasn’t going to stand in his way as long as the survey was as complete and accurate as it could be.   The poor guys that were helping us with the survey were sleep walking with survey poles the last 4 hours.  But we bought them lunch and paid them wages for 2 days work. As we left they were begging us to call them up when we return.

Last night in Dondon we slept in the upstairs of an old abandoned house.  We arrived to find 2 beds and only 1 old dirty sheet.  I told Gidel to take the bed with the sheet but he insisted I take it.  So to protect myself from malaria ridden mosquitos I wrapped myself in it and fell asleep.  As I fell asleep I made a list to bring a towel, clean sheets and a mosquito net next time. 

There was a well nearby where we carried our water up to the bathroom with a bucket.  The bathroom was disgusting as usual and it was bucket showers standing on a slimy, stinky slab of concrete again.  It may be just these moments where I am subjected to the disgusting reality of sanitation in Haiti that motivate me to keep coming back and building for the future of Haiti.  These poor children deserve better than this.

My reward for finishing early was a night in the Haiti Outreach guest house.  It was clean, had lights and a shower with water from above!  Anne Marie even made us pumpkin soup for breakfast, what a treat!  I’ll spend today teaching Raynold AutoCAD and tomorrow morning I’ll be off to Fort Jacques to prepare for a survey with my business partners James and Stuart.  We will be working near where I lived while in the Peace Corps.  I’m hoping to stay with my host family for a night.  If that happens I’m sure there will be more stories to come so stay tuned!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

All is set for a great new project.

Tuesday morning Raynold and I finished our survey from the spring into town by 9 AM!  I guess you get to be ahead of schedule when you start 3 straight days of 4:30 AM.  It's still dark then but much cooler.  We paid our survey helpers, each for $US 10 a day and headed into town.  We went street by street and took notes about the conditions where we would have to dig to install the water pipes.  Our biggest obstacle is the canals built for rainwater drainage, each is about 3 feet wide and 4 to 8 feet deep.  The idea is to avoid crossing them as much as possible but eventually we'll have to navigate them one way or another.  It sounds like Raynold is going to have the guys tunnel under them by hand.  He'll likely have to make 20-30 crossings.

Then on Wednesday morning we headed out to measure the flow of water into the water tank above Hinche.  There is an old water system built in the early 80's.  It provides maybe 5 gallons per person every other day.  The way we measure the flow is to close the valve leaving the tank and measure the rise of water in the tank per minute.  We measured 200 gallons per minute, less than half what the new system will need.  But our contract does not address the water supply component of the system.

With all of our survey results collected it was time to meet with the government water authority and present our results.  There also happens to be a project funded by the national government to create a master plan for this very water system.  There has been a European company in town for the past 3-4 months doing the study.  But because their results won't be ready or approved for at least a few months we were called in to create a plan that could be built at least where the new roads are going.  It was a great meeting and all appear to be on board with the ideas we presented.  I had an AutoCAD plan of  the water pipe layout for the entire system for all to see.  We received some great feedback from the local water guys to tweak the design.  We are also hoping to incorporate as many of the ideas from the other engineer's plan as possible.

The day ended at the SECOSA office in Port au Prince.  They are the road contractor and the source of funds for our water project.  They checked out our plan and approved an initial payment to get the project moving along.  The road builders in Hinche were ready for pipe to be laid months ago so the sooner we can get materials ordered and on site the better.  If it takes more than a couple weeks I'm afraid they will start paving streets.  That would make our job nearly impossible.  Oh, Haiti; why do you have to work backwards like this... humph. 

While we were waiting in the SECOSA office I dropped in and had a chat with their AutoCAD technician.  I had spent almost 2 days cleaning up his drawing before I could use it for each of the past 3 water projects.  So I figured a bit of instruction could go a long way in making my job easier.  He was more than happy to take the instruction and it turned into an hour-long training session.  I'm sure he came right out of school and was asked to create drawings without any kind of mentor or established system for working. I also had a couple hour session teaching my student, Raynold how to use AutoCAD the other night.  He's attempting to run it on a Mac which is a nightmare but we'll find a way somehow to get him creating his own plans.

So far our partnership with the SECOSA road contractor has been very productive.  So much of the money spent in Haiti goes for reports and studies.  Very little ever actually gets built.  In this arrangement SECOSA gets a contract to build the roads and tacks a water system onto the contract.  We share the same survey and AutoCAD drawing which saves time and money.  It also guarantees that work actually gets done.  And I'm proud to say that almost every penny we spend on labor goes into the pocket of a Haitian, killing 2 birds with one stone.  They get jobs and a water system all in the same project. 

This trip has nearly come to an end.  I'll be on a plane back to the States within a few hours.  But it was more productive than I could have imagined.  We also started some great relationships that I think will go a long way towards moving Haiti forward.  So until next time na'we pita from the Red Hat Water Guy...