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"We carried sand and looked for the best stones to build the tank with,” said Vetlana, above, who has lived in the Los Cacaos community for all of her 70 years. "People here now feel valued, that they are taken seriously as people. That our work is not to just have them have their hand out asking for things, that it is to work together as a team. They have water and better health, but they also feel better as people," Sr. Refugio said. (Christian Fuchs — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)

(Los Cacaos, Haiti) January 12, 2012 — Two years after an earthquake struck Haiti the community of Los Cacaos has demonstrated what happens when neighbors work together to solve a problem. Fresh, clean water is now available to 700 families thanks to the community’s commitment to build a positive foundation for long-term improvements.

Catholic nuns based across the Artibonite river in San Francisco of Banica Parish in the Dominican Republic organized the project in consultation with community leaders. Jesuit Refugee Service/USA provided $113,000 to fund the project, and members of the community supplied the labor to build roads, construct cisterns and lay miles of plastic pipe and tubing.

"We had 11 brigades of 25 to 32 people each working on the project. They carried sand and cement to places where trucks could not reach. They carried these things over the hills to the source of the water," said Wilens Thomas, of Los Cacaos.

Previously, obtaining clean water meant a hike of several miles — one way — over rugged hills and through valleys to collect the water in buckets and jerrycans. The arduous trip took four hours or more, and often had to be done twice a day.

"Before the project I would send the kids to get water, it would sometimes take them half a day or more. Sometimes the water would spill on the return trip and they'd have to go back," said community resident Olise, a father of five. Olise's comment highlighted an additional benefit of the cisterns: children who were before engaged in trekking for hours to water sources now can concentrate on attending school within the safety of their communities.

"This project proclaims a bright future because all different age groups are involved. And I don't want to leave out the work the women have done, they have done a great deal of work for this project," said Sr. Refugio Chavez. 

This community-based participative model for humanitarian aid delivery and development has had the dual role of providing necessary resources for the health of the community while strengthening the role of women in the decision-making processes and empowering them to take an active role in the development projects. In light of the prevalence of gender-based violence in Haiti, the full integration of local women in the planning and implementation of this life-saving water and reforestation project will have an enduring effect on the status of women in the region.

Prior to the January 2010 earthquake, the Los Cacaos area was home to more than 8,700 people. After the earthquake the area became a transit point for many displaced families trying to migrate to the Dominican Republic and the population soared to at least 16,000. Those not seeking to migrate were simply looking for hope and better opportunities than what remained in Port au Prince.

Long Term Recovery 

"One of our goals is that the project become self-sustaining," Sr. Refugio said. "We hope that the project becomes completely integrated with education, with health, with improved agriculture and food security. There is a hope that Los Cacaos, which is considered one of the poorest places in Haiti, can show Haiti and the world that it has brought itself up and gotten on its feet and started moving. The way to improve their lives, the resources to make changes, exist right here and they don't have to go to the Dominican Republic," she said.

After cholera struck the community in October of 2010, the nuns spoke to area residents and learned about the difficulty of obtaining fresh, clean water. A plan was devised to pipe water from high in the hills down to the populated areas, where it is filtered, stored in cisterns and then piped to homes and community centers.

One cistern holds 50,000 gallons of water and a second holds 25,000 gallons. The project directly benefits about 450 families in the El Corte area around the first cistern, and another 250 families in the area around the second cistern. 

"The project took a lot of work. We had to carry sand and concrete up the hills," said Enila. Enila and her husband Alcen live in the El Corte community. Their lives have changed dramatically since the water started flowing to the front of their modest dwelling. 

"Before the water was piped in we had to hike up to the river, collect it in big gallon jugs and bring it back and boil it to use it. We had to dedicate a lot of time to getting water, and now we are able to do other things,” she said. More importantly, she added, "Our health is much better now, we feel much better." 

The water also allows people to grow crops year-round, rather than just during the rainy season. 

"We have been able to grow plantains and fruits. We grow food for us, and also some for sale. Or we trade it for soap, cooking oil and charcoal," said Enila.

Enila and others noted that several times in the past, outside groups have arrived in the community promising improvements, only to leave without changing anything. "Before, people thought there would never be water and for that reason some people did not work on the project," she said. 

"We carried sand and looked for the best stones to build the tank with,” said Vetlana, who has lived in the Los Cacaos community for all of her 70 years. "We traveled outside of our community five different days looking for stones." 

Those families who did not work on the initial phase of the project are being invited to join now.

"They have the chance to work with us by planting trees and bushes up by the source of the water,” said Wilens, who is the local coordinator. "Planting the trees and bushes will help keep the water clean." 

Re-planting and recovering the ecology of the area will also mitigate the effects of tropical storms, as new trees and plants will take root in the mountains and deter erosion.

The irrigation system allows local farmers to have a steady supply of water for their fields, and enables local residents to have community gardens and gardens outside their own homes to grow their own food; these efforts work toward restoring the livelihood of the community.

"We could raise crops before only if we had rain. There were no crops after the rainy season. Before I had to go to one side of the hill to wash, and the other side for water to drink and cook. I feel much better not having to carry water on my head," said Fifi, 25, another woman who worked on the project. 

Louis Ma has also lived here his whole life. "Last February or March you had to dig into the riverbed to get water because it was dry season. We are able to save much time because the water is here, so we can spend more time in our fields," he said. 

"Before the arrival of the project there were many illnesses because we had to take the water from the same river as the animals. There are fewer sicknesses now. Thank you. This project has saved us," said Louis.

In addition to improved physical health, Sr. Refugio noticed other changes in the community as well. 

"The first big change is the change in self esteem. People here now feel valued, that they are taken seriously as people. That our work is not to just have them have their hand out asking for things, that it is to work together as a team. They have water and better health, but they also feel better as people," she said.

"I think Jesuit Refugee Service has had a crucial role in this project, and they gave us great support when we were just dreaming about this project. The partnership: the economic support, our role as facilitators and the role of the community, has allowed us to see the joy of the people," Sr. Refugio said.

"These communities have benefitted enormously from the project, and this can be an example to Haiti and the rest of the world to see how a water project can enhance people's lives," said Wilens.

"We are thankful to God and the people who worked on the project who helped us get clean water. Please keep thinking about us," said Enila.

"I'm very happy about the arrival of the water and it feels like, with the arrival of the water, God has visited the house. And the animals are very happy about the water because they used to have to go up the hill, too," said Olise.

Read an earlier story about Los Cacaos here.

Video of Fifi doing laundry and her husband using the run-off to water their crops:

Video describing how roads had to be constructed before the water project could begin in earnest:

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