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How Honduras Shaped International Action

Some fifteen years ago, Lindsay Mattison visited several Central American countries and saw that there was no clean water. Upon his return to the States, he looked for a solution that would be easy to install and simple to maintain for locals. He found that a simple plastic tube chlorinator would save lives in underdeveloped countries. The cost was low, and the mechanism was simple. He created a clean water project at the International Center, which he had founded and run for twenty-five years. The project focused on Honduras and resulted in the successful installation of hundreds of units, saving tens of thousands of people. This project is currently led by Fred Stottlemyer of the International Rural Water Association (IRWA).

Upon his retirement, Lindsay decided to continue his work bringing clean water to the world. He set up a new organization – International Action – with his retirement pension, developing the Campaign for Clean Water for Haiti.

An Unlikely Partnership

Not long after founding International Action, Lindsay met Youngmin Chang, who had been working as an intern at the International Center and was discovering that she desired to work in the field, helping the poor and needy. Later, over Korean barbecue, an unlikely team was born. They often joke that there is nothing common between them – age, gender, cultural background, work experience, family – except the desire to help the world’s poorest.

The pair found a home for International Action in a 120-square-foot, one-room office in downtown Washington, DC. Almost immediately, Youngmin attended a water conference held by IRWA in La Ceiba, Honduras. She met Fred Stottlemyer and Lupe Aragon, who had run municipal water systems for decades in West Virginia and New Mexico. Fred was excited to learn that Lindsay was interested in getting back into water projects and volunteered to train Youngmin. She shadowed Fred and Lupe and saw water systems at orphanages and schools in Tegucigalpa and community water systems in rural areas. The cost-effectiveness and durability of the chlorinators they had installed surprised Youngmin. Impressed, she invited Fred and Lupe to visit Haiti and secured their commitment to join International Action as volunteer trainers.

International Action’s Introduction to Haiti

Lindsay’s long-time friend Almami Cyllah, who had lived in Haiti for four years, asked that Haiti be the focus of International Action’s efforts. On Almami’s invitation, Fred, Lupe, Lindsay and Youngmin traveled to Haiti in December of 2005.

They were greeted by a Haitian friend of Almami’s, as well as the smell of burning trash. The team had a hard time absorbing the shock of extreme poverty. None could believe that there were no sewage or central water treatment systems, even in the capital city of Port-au-Prince. Honduras, the second poorest country after Haiti in the Western Hemisphere, had a central treatment system, and the municipal water system was connected to each home. Haiti’s neighbor, the Dominican Republic, also had a home-piped water system, even in rural areas. Instead of pipes connected to each home, Haiti had women and little children to fetch water from decentralized, neighborhood-by-neighborhood systems. Fortunately, the water solutions of International Action perfectly suited these conditions.

They headed out to the small town of Gressier, a little over 12 miles west of Port-au-Prince, which Almami’s friend had identified for the first installation. They met curious little children, local volunteers, and the mayor, whose home was the only one connected to a concrete reservoir. The reservoir was connected to a kiosk where women and girls came to retrieve water. When they opened the metal door of the reservoir to check its levels, they were welcomed by tens of cockroaches. People drank and used what little water it contained, which was neither filtered nor disinfected. There was no sewage, sanitation, or water treatment in Gressier, as in all other places in Haiti.

International Action Learns Its First Lesson

In half a day, Fred and Lupe, with the aid of a local plumber, had successfully installed a chlorinator for the town of Gressier. They returned to Port-au-Prince only to later learn that the chlorinator was stolen three days after the installation. It had been set up inside a small cement hut with a lock, which had been broken. A jealous resident in a neighboring town was suspected.

The team learned a very valuable lesson from this failure. Although installing a chlorinator or another lifesaving system may be rather easy – in the case of the chlorinator, the process takes less than a day – local investment in the system must be absolute. Without training local groups to maintain the system and teaching residents the value of clean water, it won’t last, no matter how secure its location.

International Action Continues to Learn

With this lesson in mind, International Action organized a training workshop with the rural water agency of Haiti, formerly known as POCHEP, in May of 2006. They invited many international organizations, including World Vision, Concern Worldwide, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and local grassroots organizations, including Kokapop, an association of presidents of poor neighborhoods in Haiti.

The workshop stressed the importance of clean water and disinfecting drinking water supplies. Fred taught attendees the simple process of installing chlorinators. The organizations were eager to learn new solutions for the problems affecting their neighborhoods. At the end of the day, International Action confidently distributed 25 chlorinators and many buckets of chlorine tablets. They never heard from workshop attendees about the chlorinators they received.

Although they needed clean drinking water, each organization had their own priorities and agendas. Furthermore, attendees were office people, professionals who don’t do handy work in a country with many low-cost laborers. From this failure, Lindsay and Youngmin began to discuss working directly with locals, perhaps hiring them to represent International Action in Haiti.

An Invaluable Haitian Partner

The workshop produced more than just a valuable lesson for International Action. There, Lindsay and Youngmin met Dalebrun Esther, current Director of Operations in Haiti for International Action.  

Dalebrun, having lost his father at the age of 14, struggled through his childhood in the most impoverished slum of Port-au-Prince, Cité Soleil. Instead of leaving, Dalebrun worked to improve his community. He took a position as community organizer in the water sector while supporting a wife and daughter. He acted as the general coordinator of Kokapop, giving him strong relationships with each neighborhood water board. He also worked at Haiti’s metropolitan water agency, formerly known as CAMEP, and recalled his experience:

“When I worked at CAMEP, their truck often was surrounded by angry mothers and residents demanding clean drinking water. When I started working with International Action and installed a chlorine system on the neighborhood water tanks, mothers would come out with freshly baked bread to offer. I didn’t want to take food from the poorest people, but I would take a bite as a gesture.”

From his own professional and personal experiences, Dalebrun knows the importance of education for the children in the poorest slums. Children often get bellyaches from bad water and fall behind at school. He was unable to receive his degree in chemical engineering until the age of 30. Lindsay and Youngmin share his view on education and have created the Books for Schools program to address this issue further. 

International Action Begins

With lessons-learned in mind and a new, dedicated, and experienced local staff, International Action installed its first chlorinator in Jalousie, where a water board was already in place. The shantytown has a reservoir that sends water to six kiosks. Its chlorinator survived the earthquake and has served 25,000 residents in the neighborhood since May 8th, 2006.

International Action began that day, but the center of its programs later became Port-au-Prince. Each of the decentralized neighborhood water tanks of the heavily population capital serve many thousands, if not tens of thousands, of residents. A single chlorinator at one of these sites can help all those people. With limited resources and a focus on cost-effectiveness, Port-au-Prince made the most sense for International Action. It allowed for the greatest impact on Haitian lives. Within two years, International Action had provided 300,000 Haitians with clean drinking water.

International Action and the 2010 Earthquake

By 2009, Lindsay, Youngmin, and Dalebrun had installed chlorinators at all available water tanks in their target area, serving 500,000 Haitians clean drinking water. They made a commitment at the 2009 Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting to bring clean drinking water to 2.5 million Haitians in Port-au-Prince. They planned to set up a local fiberglass water tank factory to stimulate the local economy and provide locally manufactured tanks to neighborhoods lacking water storage facilities.

On January 12, 2010, a catastrophic magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti, leaving devastation in its wake. Dalebrun and the team in Haiti immediately started delivering water to the hardest hit areas using the 325-gallon water tank on International Action’s pick-up truck. Lindsay and Youngmin realized that only International Action possessed any GPS coordinate data on the community water tanks and kiosks. They shared the information with USAID, US Army Corps of Engineers, World Health Organization, Clinton Global Initiative, and many others.

Knowing the small tank on the pick-up would not be enough, Lindsay and Youngmin decided to use commercial water trucks to deliver water to disaster areas. Dalebrun began water trucking on the eighth day after the earthquake, reaching hundreds of thousands of victims with disinfected drinking water. Days later, water trucking was adopted by many organizations, including the International Red Cross.

Gradually leaving the water delivery to these other organizations, Dalebrun and the team started assessing the damage to the chlorinators. More than 70% of chlorinators were out of order. Some of the schools, orphanages, and clinics International Action served had simply collapsed. Many of the community water tanks and other water storage structures had been damaged and were no longer capable of providing water.

Lindsay and Youngmin realized the factory they had planned couldn’t be carried out in the wake of the disaster. They decided instead to special order and ship 68 2,000-gallon water tanks equipped with chlorinators on top. In addition to these large tanks, they developed 150-gallon tanks for schools and other small but vital locations.

International Action Today

To date, the team has replaced or repaired all chlorinators and water tanks damaged in the earthquake. International Action now serves over 600,000 Haitians. Our hope is that our model will be replicated in other developing nations with decentralized water systems and that disinfection will become a standard in water development programs, along with water access and water storage.

Learn more about our work.