Life changing latrines

How building latrines eliminated cholera

Andrenya Charl stands proudly in front of her new latrine. Its walls are still being built, so temporary sheets serve as protection. "I am so happy for this latrine," Charl says smiling broadly.

"My whole life, I never thought this would be possible. Since I was a little girl, I have had to go to the bathroom in the fields, even when it was raining or when it was dark... Bugs can bite you, and people can see you. I have two children now, 7 and 11, and they have known no other way." Charl and her family were not alone. Kabay, is a rural community about two hours north of Port-au-Prince, in the mountains overlooking the Artibonite valley. Prior to this project there had only been two latrines for the area's estimated 1,200 people. 

Andrenya Charl, Kabay, Haiti, was a one of 181 families who built latrines for their homes in this MCC supported project. 

The beautiful community of Kabay and its surrounding neighbours, Touzen, Lakon, Fao, Lifran, Delma, Moutaka, and Kivye are some of the poorest in the Artibonite valley. Last year, when a group of MCC supporters visited the community, the number of challenges listed off by community leaders was overwhelming: no schools, no clinics, no pharmacies, no roads, no protected water sources and only two latrines.

Prior to MCCs partnership with the community and many years of work on conservation agriculture, reforestation, environmental education, and community mobilization, this already weighty list would have included widespread malnutrition, declining agricultural yields, and near total deforestation. When asked by a member of the visiting learning tour what change would now be a priority in the community, the answer was nearly unanimous — latrines.

Many people take toilets for granted, this was not the case in Kabay. Not only is open defecation an embarrassment, a hassle, and dangerous for members of the community, it also poses a serious threat to health. Without latrines, people are forced to use the surrounding fields, where fecal matter can quickly contaminate both crops and the community's shared water sources.

With already fragile health, no easily accessible clinic or pharmacy, and serious endemic infectious diseases, this contamination of food and water all too frequently brings sickness, disability or death. The ravages of cholera, typhoid and other waterborne diseases have become expected tragedies in Kabay— with 15-25 new cholera cases during each rainy season and a number of deaths. Despite a clear understanding of the problem, people in communities like Kabay are too poor to afford the simply materials of a safe latrine (a cement base, a PVC vent pipe, and a tin roof). 

Konsoke Oreilis, Kabay, Haiti, was paralyzed due to an untreated infection as a child. He is unable to work and has no living family left in the area. His neighbours jumped in to help provide the physical work contribution to install a latrine at his home as part of the project.  

Latrine projects have a checkered history in Haiti, and often failed when they did not take seriously the communities' priorities and cultural and practical concerns.  Latrines that are built to be nicer than local homes and churches are seen as disrespectful, and latrines that are constructed by bringing in entirely foreign materials, methods and labour serve to perpetuate dependency.

To avoid these pitfalls, the Kabay latrine project began with lengthy community consultation and meetings, buy-in and approval from the local government authorities, the use of primarily local materials and design, local skilled labour, and a household contribution. To participate, each household dug the latrine hole, provided the wood (locally harvested), provided the local materials for the walls, and helped to transport materials to the building site. The work was organized by neighbourhood groups to allow all families to participate. The work was organized and supervised by a local management committee.

Fleurimond Konsel and Pierre Litana, are members of the local management committee which oversaw the project. 

Ahead of schedule (all 181 latrines are operational, with the finishing walls in progress) and under budget, the project is already showing results. While each past rainy seasons predictably brought dozens of cases of cholera and other serious diarrheal diseases, the community and surrounding area have seen zero cases of cholera or other acute diarrhea since the latrines were dug. The project's 181 latrines now provide approximately 95 per cent coverage to Kabay and the immediately surrounding communities.

As Pierre Litana, a member of the local management committee explained, "We could not have done this by ourselves. We knew it needed to be done. We were happy to work hard and collect materials. We are happy to keep the latrines clean and teach our children to use them. Not having latrines was a hidden problem, but it was causing much illness, especially among our children. Now we all have a toilet, and we can keep our children healthy and alive." 

The project's final latrine under construction in Kabay, Haiti.