In the cinderblock slum of Delmas 32, residents are banding together to provide what Haiti's disorganized government cannot: an affordable supply of safe drinking water.
Soon, 11 fountains will serve the neighborhood of 50,000 people. A residents committee will run the fountains and charge for the water."The state has thrown in the towel. But people pulling together can accomplish wonders," said the committee's vice president, Volney St. Tresor, a carpenter. "This is the development strategy that works, because we are participating in it."
The project - and others like it throughout Port-au-Prince - is the brainchild of the Research and Technical Exchange Group, an organization financed by the European Union.
With the Haitian government's approval, the group worked with Delmas residents to build the 11 fountains, a central reservoir and 500 private water hookups.
"Everything is managed by the neighborhood water committee," said Sacha Brailowsky, a French physician who directs the exchange group.
"The only way out of the disaster is empowerment, getting the people to get involved in the solution of their problem," Brailowsky said.
In Haiti, the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation, water costs eight times what it does in developed countries. More than half of Port-au-Prince's 2 million residents don't have ready access to water, and when they do, it is often contaminated by sewage.
The public water network was built decades ago when the metropolitan area's population was just 500,000. Investment failed to keep pace with growth, and the system was neglected through a series of coups, a 1994 U.S.-led intervention to oust a military regime and, in the past year, political squabbling that has paralyzed the government.
The proportion of Haitians with access to safe water dropped from 60 percent in 1985 to 30 percent in 1995.
"Haiti is certainly one of the countries where public powers are the least present. This translates into a great disorganization," said a December report on the capital's water situation by Hydro Conseil, a French consulting firm.
The World Health Organization says 5 gallons of water are needed to satisfy a person's daily minimum needs, a half gallon more than the average per-capita consumption in Haiti. By contrast, average daily consumption is 8 gallons in Africa, 52 in Europe and 208 in the United States, according to the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization.
Haitians have a per capita annual income of about $300, and they spend an average of 12 percent of that to get water. Residents in most African cities spend 3.5 percent of their income on water, Hydro Conseil said.
In most of Port-au-Prince, water delivery is haphazard at best.
From sunup to sundown, hundreds of tanker trucks owned by more than 50 private companies deliver water from wells outside the city. They spill generous amounts on narrow streets and often rip out low-hanging telephone and electricity wires. The cost: nearly $5 for 260 gallons.
The public utility charges only 19 cents for that amount. But there are only 64,000 customers.
Most people buy five-gallon buckets or individual glasses of water from thousands of street peddlers. The water's safety is dubious.