CARREFOUR, Haiti -- The water inspectors were negotiating with an irate homeowner over her illegal hookup when a neighbor signaled he wanted to talk.
“I would like to know how I can get water access,” physician Cyprien Jean-Jonas said from inside his one-room clinic.
Steps from Jean-Jonas’s front door was an underground well. And while many of his neighbors in this Port-au-Prince suburb had tapped into it for fresh water, Jean-Jonas said, “I don’t want to get it illegally.”
Moments like these are small but growing in Haiti where thousands of cholera deaths from contaminated water have residents increasingly worried about the quality of their water.
Now, a push by foreign donors and the Haitian government to improve access to safe drinking water is giving Haitians an incentive to legally pay for water which most buy on the streets by the bucketful or siphon off illegally.
“Customers are increasingly willing to collaborate with us,” said Beauchum Etienne, the supervising inspector who informed Jean-Jonas how to legally get service. “We talk to them about cholera and we tell them, ‘Going the legal route better increases the chances of controlling the water quality.’ ”
Once a model for water-pipe service, Haiti today has the hemisphere’s worst access to safe drinking water and sanitation.
For months, a team of inspectors from the national water and sanitation agency, DINEPA, has been canvassing metropolitan Port-au-Prince for clients who are either in arrears on payments or illegally siphoning water. The goal isn’t just to collect, but also to cut down on water losses and help engineers figure out how to improve a dilapidated water network.
Unlike the state-run electricity company that loses an estimate $18 million a month to theft, donors and Haitian officials say they don’t know for certain how much water is lost to theft or leakage — but estimate it could be as much as 80 percent of what’s produced.
Until recently, the country had no idea how much water it produced, and the water agency wasn’t collecting enough money to make payroll. Meanwhile, those fortunate enough to have water piped into their homes could only depend on getting service no more than a few hours, twice weekly.
“Water issues are always extremely difficult everywhere and more difficult in Haiti,” said Luis Alberto Moreno, president of the Inter-American Development Bank, which has teamed up with Spain to provide sanitation and safe drinking water.
Together, Spain and IDB are investing almost $180 million in projects in four regions, including Port-au-Prince, where half of the population buys water from vendors.
Projects range from helping repair reservoirs damaged in the 2010 earthquake to installing water kiosks that sell chlorinated water to improving water quality through regular testing and chlorination. Meanwhile, foreign consultants have spent the last two years helping Haitian officials restructure both DINEPA and its operating water authority. The goal is to improve continuity of the service, and increase revenue and billing by reconnecting delinquent customers.
On a recent weekday, as technicians walked door-to-door, they carried a printout of addresses and names. They began by asking a series of innocuous questions about the service, whether the homeowners had access and why they hadn’t paid. Customers offered a range of responses from poor service to not understanding their bills.