“Sanitation Solutions for Haiti” // Nick Preneta, Deputy Director of SOIL // April 19, 2017
Sanitation standards in Haiti are some of the worst in the world. In fact, only 26% of Haitian citizens have access to clean water, and 40% of urban residents in Haiti don’t have access to a toilet – private or public. During his presentation, Mr. Preneta explained that these two issues are highly interconnected. Due to their lack of access to toilets and the severely limited sewage sanitation system, many people in Haiti resort to disposing of their waste in local water sources. Given the fact that Haiti has a high water table and flooding is extremely common, this polluted water carries human waste into huge intersections where it collects indefinitely. Furthermore, there is only one functioning waste treatment facility in Haiti, which means that a mere 4% of waste is treated. The lack of sanitation in Haiti continues to cause a multitude of health problems for the Haitian people – and especially those living in urban areas. Diseases like cholera, typhoid, hepatitis, chronic diarrhea, and other waterborne diseases are spread via these waterways and cause mass-infections. The 2010 earthquake in Haiti only worsened sanitation conditions as millions of people were displaced and took up residence in public areas like parks and golf courses. Following the earthquake, water conditions deteriorated rapidly and a massive Cholera outbreak plagued the Island.
Fortunately, Mr. Preneta and his organization SOIL are actively assisting in implementing sanitation solutions in Haiti. SOIL was first established in 2006 after the founders designed and developed their first “Ecosan” toilet – similar to a port-a-potty – and tested a number of prototypes out in various places throughout Haiti’s two largest cities – the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince in the South and Cap-Haitian in the North. However, much like in the United States, the public bathrooms were not properly cared for in the communities and became incredibly dirty within short time periods. It soon became clear that SOIL did not have adequate funds or staff to efficiently maintain the bathrooms, and so they were all closed within 5 years of their creation. This presented a major setback for the SOIL team, but they learned from their mistake and soon began devising a new in-home toilet prototype. By 2009 they had developed a new strategy that enabled them to improve sanitation by working from the micro level of individual households and out through the entire sanitation chain. The first step was to build a waste treatment facility which would be used to cleanse the waste of any bacteria and then transform it into compost – the facility was completed by the end of the year. The second phase of this new sanitation strategy required slightly more time, but by early 2012, the SOIL team had installed 140 “trial” in-home toilets in a certain community for a three-month period, and had remarkable success.
Today, SOIL provide sanitary in-home toilets to over 1,000 families in the two urban areas that they serve. These toilets are extremely efficient for a number of reasons. First of all, they only cost approximately $25.00 to produce (a cost which is nearly offset by the $3.00-a-month fee that clients pay to use the toilet service). Secondly, the toilets are designed to separate solid and liquid waste immediately into 5-gallon and 1-gallon buckets – thereby expediting the composting process. Unfortunately, the SOIL team has not yet found a sanitary way to dispose of the liquid waste, but the team is currently in the process of exploring sanitary (and cost-effective) options. Finally, and probably most important to users, the SOIL toilets emit almost no odor. This is primarily due to a certain type of sawdust that SOIL includes with the toilets that absorbs the odor almost entirely. Furthermore, SOIL also provides a weekly collection service that picks up the waste-filled buckets (replacing them with clean, empty buckets) and transports them to the SOIL waste treatment facilities.
Since 2009, the SOIL team has built and currently runs two composting waste treatment facilities that they use to compost thousands of gallons of waste over the past eight years. In fact, SOIL is now one of the largest waste treatment operations in Haiti. Mr. Preneta and the SOIL organization take great pride in their composting facilities because the vast majority of sanitary development projects “start and end with toilets.” The problem with this, Mr. Preneta explained, is that the human waste still eventually ends up in the public water system, spreading deadly pathogens to everyone in a community. Water-borne pathogens can cause severe damage in a society; according to Mr. Preneta, in Haiti – an island with the relatively-low population of 9 million (roughly equivalent to that of New York City) – 10 children die from water-borne illnesses each day.
The process required to transform human waste to usable compost is rather complex and requires multiple steps: First, after arriving at the treatment facility, the human waste must be tested for pathogens. In the past SOIL partnered with the US Center for Disease Control to test the feces for various pathogens, but they now operate out of a local lab that uses E. Coli as an indicator of pathogens – the pathogen-removal process typically takes 5-6 weeks. After the waste is processed and cleansed in the lab it undergoes thermophilic (“hot”) composting during which soil microbes slowly decompose and produce heat so that thermophilic microbes can thrive. During this process, the intense levels of heat kills pathogens and expedites decomposition. Finally, the finished compost is tested for pathogens once more, packaged in 40 pound bags, and sold to local farmers and larger corporations. Per Mr. Preneta, one ton of SOIL’s compost costs approximately $300.00, and the organization currently has a waiting list of individuals and businesses that want to purchase their product. Not only does the composting method of disposal significantly decrease the amount of human waste that infiltrates public water stores, it also helps revitalize soil that has been eroded or lost nutrition due to extensive deforestation on the island.
In my opinion, one of the most unique and admirable qualities of SOIL’s operations is that they largely employ internally. According to Mr. Preneta, apart from the few US founders of SOIL who now largely work on advertising and fundraising abroad, the entirety of the SOIL team (approximately 30 full-time employees) are native Haitians. Not only are these employees highly qualified for their positions but, being natives themselves, they are also acutely aware and sensitive to the sanitation situation in Haiti and the many ways in which it negatively affects Haitian citizens – especially those living in poverty. In addition to SOIL’s 30 full-time Haitian employees, SOIL also employs a significant number of “daily workers” at their composting facilities. Per Mr. Preneta, each morning, large lines of Haitian citizens hoping to earn a day’s wage form outside of both SOIL composting facilities. In this way, SOIL also assists in the reduction of poverty in both Port-a-Prince and Cap-Haitian (both of which are hosts to high levels of unemployment) by way of job creation.
Despite all of the excellent work that SOIL does in Haiti, there are multiple ways in which the operation could be significantly improved. Based upon the information provided by Mr. Preneta, SOIL faces numerous economic shortcomings that severely inhibit their productivity. For one, the $3.00 monthly fee that SOIL charges for their toilet services does not quite cover the cost of toilet production and waste transportation to and from users’ homes. After a thorough cost-analysis, the SOIL team came to the realization that their costs were $1.50 more than their profits. However, Mr. Preneta is confident that with a few modifications to the current process (such as outsourcing transport in order to avoid unnecessary costs like vehicle repair), in the near-future, this portion of their operation – the “front end” – will soon be a money-making business venture that will be extremely attractive to private-sector corporations. Unfortunately, the “back end” of the operation – testing human waste for pathogens and subsequently composting waste – is a far more expensive endeavor. According to Mr. Preneta, SOIL’s average costs currently outweigh their profits by approximately $8.00 (a far larger gap).
Of course, there are certain actions that the SOIL team can take to reduce the current back-end costs – for example, employing new machinery to make the composting process more efficient. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent to the team that they will require some level of public funding by the Haitian government in order to continue operations sustainably. Unfortunately, there is a high level of political turnover in the Haitian government that makes it difficult to build and maintain government relationships. Furthermore, much like in the United States, the environment does not take top priority in Haitim so the DINEPA (the Haitian equivalent to the US EPA) does not have adequate resources to allocate to SOIL’s project. That said, during one of SOIL’s meetings with the DINEPA, the agency made it clear that they are willing to provide some level of funding to SOIL when the team presents them with a self-sustainable business model. Mr. Preneta was adamant that SOIL is on the verge of developing such a business model, and is hopeful that it will allow the public and private sectors to work together in solving Haiti’s sanitation problems.
Prior to attending Mr. Preneta’s lecture, I had never heard of SOIL and was relatively uninformed about Haiti’s poor sanitation. Truthfully, upon hearing that 40% of urban residents in Haiti do not have access to a single toilet, I was racked with guilt over the fact that I myself have three toilets in my own apartment – all of which I take for granted. After hearing Mr. Preneta speak about the work that SOIL is doing on the ground, I am of the belief that their operations are paramount to improving sanitation conditions in Haiti. I am especially impressed by the holistic approach that SOIL takes to solving sanitation problems – not only providing access to toilets, but also repurposing human waste as compost in order to revitalize soil and employing local Haitian residents at composting facilities in order to reduce unemployment (and in turn, poverty). I am curious to know if it would be possible for the SOIL team to somehow implement a device into toilets that could detect pathogens on a house-to-house basis, thereby enabling Haitians to recognize their illnesses and better treat them. I wonder if, additionally, a pathogen-detecting device would also be beneficial to the Haitian government in accessing public health. It will be interesting to see if, as their operations continue to grow, SOIL eventually begins to repurpose liquid waste as well as material waste – especially seeing as numerous studies have proven that it can be used as an excellent fertilizer.
Seeing as the situation in Haiti is so deeply complex, there are a number of interconnected “geographic standards” that create the conditions in which the poor sanitation conditions are allowed to thrive. However, I would say that at its core, the sanitation problem essentially boils down to overpopulation in urban areas (Element 3, Standard 6). According to Mr. Preneta, the population of Port-au-Prince is nearly 1 million and Cap-Haitian’s population is approximately 250,000. In both of these cities, poverty is rampant and Haitian citizens live in extremely close quarters that promote the spread of various pathogens. The 2010 earthquake in Haiti severely exacerbated this situation due to the migration of thousands of displaced families to cities in order to gain better access to resources. Upon their migration, thousands of people set up temporary settlements in public places, worsening the already suboptimal sanitation situation in the highly urbanized areas.
As I mentioned before, the Haitian people are extremely impoverished and so over 40% of the urban population in Haiti does not have access to a toilet and so they dispose of their waste in local water sources. This disposal method is worsened by the fact that both Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haitian are coastal cities prone to flooding. When these cities are flooded, the waste-filled water flows through the cities narrow streets and collects in major intersections where it remains. Since these intersections are so heavily trafficked by city-dwellers, the pathogens contained in the waste are spread rapidly throughout the city. These diseases lead to high death rates on the Island, but the CDR is far outweighed by the extremely-high birth rate in Haiti which is causing the population to grow exponentially. Since children are far more susceptible to disease, Haiti’s high CBR also expedites the spread of deadly pathogens.