Trainees of Knight International Journalism Fellow Cover Sanitation Issues in Post-Quake Haiti

Mar 92011

Trainees of Knight Fellow Kathie Klarreich covered sanitation issues for Haitian daily Le Nouvelliste. As part of her fellowship project, Klarreich trained these reporters to track how billions of inflowing aid money is being spent to ensure a transparent recovery process. The piece covers the Haitian government's decision to suspend construction on a water sanitation plant and relocate despite the significant funds already invested in the project.

The Underside of DINEPA

Le Nouvelliste March 10, 2011

Port-au-Prince: After more than a year of conflict, confusion, political maneuvering and international pressure, Haiti is still discussing where to place its first human sewage treatment center. The original two-million dollar project, financed by Spain and just weeks from completion, has been officially abandoned. Coincidentally or not, Spain’s ambassador has been transferred to Paraguay. Cholera, although contained, continues to claim victims and a repository for the contaminated excreta must be rebuilt from scratch.

But where? The original site, visible along the country’s national highway towards the north, remains an eyesore and the subject of a land dispute. An alternative site, visited by a government delegation last month, has since been rejected a second time because of its close proximity to the cemetery of victims from Haiti’s January 12, 2010, earthquake.

The unfortunate truth is that one year after initial discussions began about where to place the site, three months after ground was broken and one month after the plant was to be operational, the principle actors are back at the drawing board.

Spain had hoped that the government would resume work on the original Titayen site which began in November. It helped draft a letter to Prime Minister Max Bellerive that was signed by eight representatives of Haiti’s 12 major donors (The United Nations, World Bank, International Development Bank, European Union, Canada, US, Spain and France); Norway, Japan, Brazil and the International Monetary Fund did not sign.

However diplomatic, the letter sidestepped the heart of the problem - that work began on a site without a verifiable land title. Spain was caught with egg on its face. Sources close to the Spanish embassy and DINEPA said that as a result of the mess up Spain blocked some $100 million earmarked for other projects. Neither the Spanish embassy nor DINEPA responded to requests from Le Nouvelliste to verify this information.

Constructing a human sewage treatment plant had been a government priority long before October’s cholera epidemic. Although recent statistics show that the death rate from cholera has slowed, the need for such a plant remains high. Private companies as well as non-governmental agencies working in tent camps continue to use the state’s garbage dump at Truitier for unloading human sewage. The Truitier site was opened temporarily for excreta after the earthquake, but the specially dug pits are near capacity.

The highly visible site in question, Titayen, is in the township of Croix-des-Boquets. Three entities - two individuals and a private company (NABATEC) – claim ownership of the land. Land titles have been disputed for decades and are proving to be a major roadblock in the country’s reconstruction.

One of the plaintiffs, NABATEC, has released a four-page color brochure that outlines an industrial, commercial and residential project slated for the land in question. It includes photo copies of documents identifying its land ownership legality. Sources inside DGI, however, refute that claim.

Croix–des-Boquets Mayor Darius St. Angelo originally identified the Titayen site. “But we do not have the authority to tell DINEPA to proceed with construction,” he said. “We can only identify land. The next step is to get permission from the Environmental Ministry.”

St. Angelo said he sent a letter to the Environmental Ministry and spoke twice to the Ministry of Interior. "Only after a (positive) response from the Ministry of Environment can I request that the Ministry of Interior file an application for the Ministry of Finance,” he explained.

Following protocol, the case would then be referred to the general Directorate of Taxes (DGI). The newspaper was unable to secure a copy of the aforementioned letter or get confirmation of its delivery from the Ministry of the Environment.

DINEPA appears to have put the cart before the horse. "We were informed of the project when the work was already at an advanced stage," a source inside the Ministry of Environment confirmed. Once aware, the Ministry appointed Engineer Ludner Remarais, head of the West Department, to oversee the project. Remarais said the project was “commendable," but admitted that before work began an environmental and social impact analysis should have been done.

The Directorate General of Taxes (DGI) said he had not even been aware of the project.

The Spanish Ambassador refused to meet with Le Nouvelliste. Before his transfer to Paraguay, Fernández Trigo said he no longer wished to speak on the subject. A few days prior, however, he spoke on a local radio station, Metropole, and denounced the fact that work had stopped on the plant. “The Haitian authorities must take measures to compensate the owners of the land," he said.

Manuel Ruigómez Hernández, consul general for the Dominican Republic since 2005, has been assigned to replace Trigo. Spain denies there is any connection between the transfer and the sewage plant.

The question remains, how is it that Spain agreed to disburse funds for a project without proof of land title? How is it that three Haitian ministries, two major international funding entities and two Haitian government agencies let the situation get so out of hand? The answer isn’t clear. Ambassador Trigo merely suggested that DINEPA had formally requested that Spain finance the project.

The National Laboratory of Building and Construction (LNBTP) conducted a geotechnical study of the selected site for DINEPA. Yves Frantz Joseph, Secretary of State for Public Works, referred Le Nouvelliste to DINEPA for a copy of the report, but the paper was unable to obtain one or get information about its content.

The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) also commissioned a field study conducted by Environmental Engineering and Geotechnics (EE & G), a private American company. EE&G representatives said they were under contract with IDB and could not comment on the results of the study. Efforts to meet with the IDB representative in Haiti, Eduardo Almeida, were “noted” but not granted.

DINEPA’s director Engineer Gerald Jean-Baptiste also ignored Le Nouvelliste’s request for an interview, in contrast to its immediate response to the first article in this series, when they called the paper to ask for a retraction. The next day DINEPA sent Le Nouvelliste a document listing the chronology of the project, in which it said that discussions to create a modern human waste landfill plant had begun in February 2010, eight months before the cholera outbreak. Two sites were selected after consultations with the mayor of Cité Soleil and the Croix-des-Bouquets. The alternative site near by Saint Christophe was rejected because of its proximity to the cemetery for victims of the earthquake.

In November 2010, DINEPA wrote, the mayor of Croix-des-Bouquets and the head of DINEPA reiterated their approval for the emergency work and indicated their willingness to support the process. They insisted that there was “no danger of a land conflict (and) that the site in question was part of the private domain of the State."

Meanwhile, DINEPA urged the mayor of Croix-des-Bouquets to obtain a building permit pending legal documents.

The work on the Titayen site began on November 24, 2010. On November 25, the first of three land ownership disputes was filed. On December 30, just two weeks from completion, the project was shut down.

The cost, two million dollars, is a drop in the bucket when compared to the billions pledged by the international community to ‘build back better.’ But it is a loss nonetheless and a lesson for all those involved in Haiti’s reconstruction that the slate should be clean before the first shovel of dirt is removed.

This article is published with the support of the International Center for Journalists

Jean Pharès Jérôme Dieudonné Joachim