PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI – Goats and pigs forage for food around Ravine Georges, a community perched on the banks of a stormwater drain that carries rainwater out of the city.
This small neighborhood of Port-au-Prince has long been home to people from rural Haiti who moved to the capital in search of opportunity.
But life is far from easy on the side of the ravine. The small houses, some built from tin and other construction material, are in a state of disrepair, and residents live alongside stagnant water and shifting earth. The gully is filled with refuse from the houses that line its banks – from plastic household waste to old clothing and appliances. The stagnant water serves as a breeding ground for disease, and houses are vulnerable to flooding.
“Each year, the situation gets worse,” says Mackenzy Guillaume, a resident of the neighborhood around Ravine Georges. “Every rainy season brings the fear of landslides and, above all, lots of garbage.”
Ravine Georges exemplifies Haiti’s struggle with urban pollution, which not only destroys the environment but endangers the health of the country’s most vulnerable residents. It also shows how homegrown community initiatives could help reduce one of Haiti’s persisting problems.
Marie Michelle Felicien, GPJ Haiti
Steevens Bélamé, 24, a development engineer and theologian, manages a small team of university students trying to improve life in communities like Ravine Georges.
The group, known as Building Haiti, helps residents clean up these areas and protect their homes using dry stone – a construction technique that does not involve binding mortar – and sandbags.
Volunteers work with neighborhood residents to conserve the land beneath their homes, so they won’t suffer landslides in heavy rain. Armed with buckets and spades, the workers fill large sacks with earth, held by residents who have joined the team to gain experience in clearing waste. They’ll use the earth to reinforce the foundations of their homes.
“Erosion is destroying our land – the hills are unstable due to anarchic construction projects,” Bélamé says. “The ravines are becoming places where people throw their waste without thinking of the consequences. I think it’s high time for us, the youth of this country, to wake up from this bed of filth and say ‘no’ to the mistreatment of the environment.”
The group has paused some of its environmental awareness activities due to the coronavirus but is staying engaged by distributing soap and masks to rural communities.
Urban pollution has long been a problem in Haiti, which produced more than 2 million metric tons of waste in 2015, according to data from the World Bank. The same report found that Port-au-Prince collects just 12% of its solid waste, one of the lowest rates in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Exacerbating the risks that come with flooding are the infectious diseases that can spread in unsanitary conditions. These include cholera, which has had a devastating effect on the country, killing thousands since it was introduced by United Nations workers after a catastrophic earthquake in 2010.
Marie Michelle Felicien, GPJ Haiti
“Haiti’s waste problem is complex,” says Allwich Joly, the spokesperson for the town hall of Port-au-Prince. There’s not enough space to dispose of it all, he says, “and the population isn’t adequately educated to understand that turning the streets into landfill is bad for their health.”
Joly says the government would like to do more to deal with the garbage issue, but the budget is too limited.
Michael Verdueu, an agricultural technician, lives in Bouda Chita, a neighborhood in Léogâne, a coastal commune west of Port-au-Prince. He says the community has suffered greatly in recent years because of a stormwater drain that runs through the neighborhood, called Ravine Dioblain.
Every time it rains, Verdueu says, tons of rocks and other materials are forced down through the gully and into the community, blocking the path of motorcyclists, farm animals and buses alike. Business grinds to a halt in Bouda Chita, and the neighborhood is paralyzed until the refuse can be cleared, he says.
In June 2019, Verdueu joined Building Haiti in clearing out the ravine to prevent landslides, reinforcing it with the rubble that had been washed down during previous inundations.
“It was a new day for us,” Verdueu says. “We did not realize that these stones could also be the solution to our problems.”
Verdueu says he and the other members of his community are now ready to act in future floods and know how to protect themselves.
Mulaire Calixte, an agricultural engineer and a deputy coordinator at Building Haiti, says it’s important for the ground by the ravines to be protected both upstream and downstream.
“Upstream clearing protects the ground, allows sediments to stabilize and lets the rainwater clean” the ravine, he says. “Downstream decreases the risk of flooding, which helps save lives.”
With little help coming from the government to combat Haiti’s growing waste problem, Bélamé, the Building Haiti leader, says it’s up to residents to take responsibility for their communities.
“Haiti wakes every morning with a cry of despair at the alarming level of environmental degradation,” he says. “And everyone sits there with their arms crossed waiting for the solution to come from someone else.”
Megan Clement, GPJ, translated the article from French.