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Located across the Artibonite River from Banica, Dominican Republic, Los Cacaos is parched and dusty during the dry season, and muddy and dangerous when tropical storms lash the countryside. (Christian Fuchs — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)
By Christian Fuchs
Jesuit Refugee Service/USA

(Los Cacaos, Haiti) August 10, 2011 — A new project spearheaded by Catholic nuns and sponsored by Jesuit Refugee Service aims to bring healthy water and reliable irrigation to this mountain village in central Haiti.

Located across the Artibonite River from Banica, Dominican Republic, Los Cacaos is parched and dusty during the dry season, and muddy and dangerous when tropical storms lash the countryside. The area was nearly impassable before the nuns arrived and bulldozed more than 23 miles of roads through the rocky mountains.

"The nuns came to help us, especially with the road. This is one of the greatest things we've ever had," said Ereze Prophétte, 62, of Los Cacaos.
[Click photos to view larger]
The nuns, Sister Maria Marciano from Brazil, Sister Maria Refugio from Mexico and Sister Julie Tomba from the Congo, are based in San Francisco of Banica Parish in the D.R. The Dominican Sisters have been working in this community for several years; following the earthquake they decided to move all of their pastoral work from the Dominican Republic to Haiti for the next several years.

Prior to the January 2010 earthquake, the Los Cacaos area was home to more than 8,700 people. After the 'quake the population soared to at least 16,000 people as the area became a transit point for many displaced families trying to migrate to the Dominican Republic. Those not seeking to migrate were simply looking for a community that could offer hope and better opportunities for the future than what they saw in Port au Prince.

However, with the outbreak of the cholera epidemic in late October of 2010, the people of Los Cacaos were wracked with illness and death.

"The place we used to drink water from before, pigs and piglets used to be in that water. All the animals were drinking there, and doing whatever there. Maria (Marciano) saw that, and said if we didn’t have clean water all the children are going to die," said Mrs. Prophétte.

"Most of our disease came from the water. If there is no good water in a place, there is no life because pure water is life," said Christiane Emmanuel, 52.

The key motivation behind this project rests on the premise that through involvement of the community and the construction of a drinking water and irrigation system a viable long-term solution for the community could be established.

By re-planting and recovering the ecology of the area the effects of tropical storms may be mitigated, as new trees and plants will take root in the mountains and deter erosion. By providing water to these communities the aim is to ensure healthy conditions for the residents and to prevent illnesses such as cholera.

The irrigation systems allow local farmers to have a steady supply of water for their fields and additionally allow local residents to have community gardens and gardens outside their own homes to grow their own food; altogether these efforts work toward restoring the livelihood of the community. For the Dominican Sisters water is a major catalyst for community organizing and change.

"We made a deal with the local people. We told them we could get them water, but they had a responsibility to plant trees. The new water source will provide both water to their homes, and irrigation to their fields so they can grow food," said Sr. Maria Marciano.

But before the water project could begin, there needed to be a way to reach the area.

"This area is isolated and cannot grow without transportation or communication. The basis of development is roads, clean water and education. If we cannot do these things, let's get out of here," said Sr. Maria Marciano.

"Before the road we used to have a lot of problems here. When a woman was pregnant and ready to give birth, but had problems, we had to take that woman on a chair or a kind of hammock and get her to Banica," said Desinard Oracius, 52. "By the help of God, and of Maria, we have this road today. Trucks can get to us, and take us when we have to get to a hospital."

To fight the cholera epidemic, the nuns "gave us information about how to protect ourselves. They taught us how to build latrines, even though they are unsophisticated, they taught us the best way to do it. Reminded us to always wash our hands, and to use chlorine to disinfect ourselves and our things," said Mrs. Prophétte.

"It makes me very happy to be here in the Dominican Republic and Haiti, I see how both peoples work very hard for the development of the area. Some officials told us when we came here that this is not going to work, because the Haitians will want you to pay them. What I learned is different. When you work with Haitians, tell them the truth. They work harder than anyone. The other day I asked for two men to come clear some rocks, we had more than 25 show up," said Sr. Maria.

A German company built a 12-kilometer road in the area at a cost of more than $200,000. The nuns have made 38 kilometers of roads through the mountains, connecting previously isolated communities, at a fraction of the cost of the shorter road.

"They saw the problems the cholera was causing, and that there was no road. When a person became sick there was no way to quickly get a person to the hospital, so they decided to build the road," said Wilens Thomas.

"Everyone said I was crazy, that I would not even find a bulldozer to help me. I told them, 'Don't worry, we will find them. They will be here,'" said Sr. Maria.

"In the Dominican Republic we made some agreements with companies, and I went to government offices and asked for assistance. The government people said, 'Sister, that is difficult. People in Haiti will destroy our machines. This is not going to be possible.' We told them it would be our responsibility, and then we spoke to the community here and said ‘we are coming here with a bulldozer, and if anything happens to it we will never come back.' The community took care of the bulldozer as though it was a child."

The nuns "also saw that the road was not the only answer, people still drank contaminated water. They helped us get clean water. We'll not only have clean water to drink, but now we can irrigate with it, and have little gardens to grow food," said Mr. Thomas.

To supply fresh and clean water to the community, the nuns devised a plan to pipe water from higher in the mountains to stone cisterns were it can be stored, and then piped further down the mountainside to the central community and surrounding fields.

"We've proposed that there be no people living near or animals kept around the source of the water, this will help keep the water clean. A pipe will carry the water from the source to a cistern, and there will be a purification process before the water is held in the cistern," said Sr. Maria. "Farmers will have clean water to protect their families' lives. The people here will be able to have their own gardens in front of their houses."

"Other communities said they would provide us water, but they were not able to. When the nuns saw that, they built the road up into the mountains, where there is good water. And now the road is here for everyone," said Mrs. Prophétte. "When people began to die here, there was no road. Now trucks and motorcycles can reach us. This is very good especially in case of emergency."

"They have taught us how to purify water to use it in our homes. We say to the Lord 'give them more strength to keep on doing this work they are doing.' Thank you," said Mr. Oracius.

"The road has been very good for us, it makes the area better. Never in our lives did we think we would have such a road," said Joseph Presner, 37.

"It's like God came from heaven to the earth because now our children will have a future. Without water there is no life, and so now we will have life. The children will be able to reach school, thanks to the road; and if someone is sick, there’s now a way to reach the hospital. Before the road it would take a very long time to reach anywhere, now it’s much shorter," said Mr. Presner.

"We hope now to acquire our own bulldozer, to expand the road system and connect more than 500,000 people who are not connected now. And we’re going to do it," said Sr. Maria.

"We say it is not the nuns who came here, it is God Himself who came here. We were praying to God, and He answered our prayers. Here we have the hope that we will be safe and that we will survive with our children. We say thanks to the Lord, because the way we were living was very bad," said Mrs. Prophétte.

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