Saturday, October 2, 2010
aftermath of the Haiti earthquake - the full story
Richard Higgins – Eco consultant for the NGO New Directions Foundation goes to help with the sanitation crisis at the international earthquake relief effort in Haiti.
On a cold morning in mid January 2010 Richard received a phone call from an old friend in New York requesting him to go to the Dominican Republic to assist and arrange entry of an international food group intending to go into Haiti to offer vegan food relief to the victims of the massive earthquake that occurred on Januray 12th. There were already 300,000 orphans in this country, before the earthquake and 98% of the country has been deforested.
The most environmentally degraded and poorest country in the western hemisphere, Haiti immediately became a very high risk place where air lift insurance cost more than in Afghanistan.
Richard accepted the proposal with the agreement that once the food group was established, he could work on his long time favourite – sustainable sanitation and food security. Richard had helped form, some fifteen years ago, and is now the lead eco consultant, for the NGO, New Directions foundation, based in London that has large proposals for building sustainable earthquake proof houses out of polyols.
Funds were received from New York and four days were spent kitting out, debriefing and printing T shirts in the UK before flying out to the Dominican Republic. Richard took a long time professional friend and Permaculture specialist with him, Andrew Crayton, aka Gaura. Together they were to research the best method of entering the then, dangerous country where hold up and bribery were common at the border, which was the only way into the country. The airport and dock having been badly smashed by the earthquake. They flew in and set up base in a down town hotel in the Capital, Santo Domingo.
Contact was established with the Chamber of Commerce and Richard and Andrew met with the Director and Treasurer at their headquarters where it was decided that they would escort Richard and his team ‘Food for Life Global’ into the capital of Haiti, to aid the desperate situation. The mother of the treasurer had founded a convent many years previous and that is where Richard and the team head of security, Andrew, were accommodated for a period of three months. Arriving there just three weeks after ‘the worlds largest disaster to happen in one place’ - there was still chaos to be seen everywhere and the stench, in the blazing sun, of rotting corpses that still lay in the thousands of collapsed buildings. If you stayed in Port au Prince for six months and went about your daily aid work you would still not see all the devastation that had occurred.
Thanks to the UN security forces, who themselves lost many men in the giant quake, and the very fast mobilization of the US military, the situation became tolerable considerably quickly. Many more people died in this earthquake than were quoted in the press and it has recently been estimated at 300,000, as many of these buildings were built without planning or building codes and there were no records of the residence.
Richard made his way daily across the city to attend the only centre of normality – The UN log base camp, which was a giant tent city set up adjascent to the airport for the purpose of organizing relief effort to the devastated city. You had to find your way through the maze of flagged tents UNICEF, IOM, OCCHA, WFP, UNDP, FAO… and this was attended by virtually every major charity in the world. Soldiers had arrived from many many countries grouped in their smart uniforms ready to go on food distribution with armed guards and armoured cars. The airport had now re-opened and WFP planes were constantly flying low overhead bringing in supplies. John Travolta had flown his plane in full with emergency supplies. Richard was spotted by a university professor, running around in his army green shorts looking like he was something left over from world war I. He was directed by Dr. Paul Ruddenberg, who later came to his site, to present his environmental solution for waste management, sanitation and food production at any of the WASH cluster meetings that were held regularly… somewhere in this emergency tent city at the UN log base.
Richard was heard speaking to a gathering crowd before one of these meetings had begun, hosting around 50 specialists from the various 1,000 NGO’s that were now descending on Haiti at that time. He was approached by the regional director for water and sanitation, Central America, for CRS (Catholic Relief Services) who’s office offered him a contract the very next week.
The Sainte Marie Convent had agreed to let Richard utilize a south facing garden that had become derelict and was so overgrown that the swarming and desperately sad and hungry refugees had not gained entrance to. It was still a lost paradise of banana trees and spice bushes. People were literally living in anything they could find, some had nothing, kids were standing about crying who had lost parents, children were just ‘dropped off’ at the Convent so young they couldn’t talk to say if it was by their mother or not. People who had lost limbs and had emergency surgery were trying to survive, people of all walks and denominations of life were just there trying to shelter from the rain and cold at night and find enough food and water to drink. It truly was an emotional challenge being there. Most NGO’s sent their aid workers home after three weeks and replaced them with fresh staff.
Richard now had staff and finance to set up a Howard Higgins Thermophilic composting site, which as Higgins claims is the fastest and most sustainable way to render human effluent into a safe and usable fertilizer in the world. This he revealed in his research in his re release of one of Sir Albert Howard’s world classics; that is now called ‘The Lost Science of Organic Cultivation’.
Food for Life Global and their newly flown in manager from the USA had decided to chosen their own site and were now established in the country. Together with the civil defence team and chamber of commerce staff, Richard and Andrew set about the construction of 5 latrines that would be different to the usual long drop toilets (3 meter pits) that had already been dug at this time. They capped off three of these pit latrines that absolutely stank as they were already dangerously in use as just open pits.
3,000 refugees had appeared virtually overnight at the Canope vert site. They had come up from the town centre past the school where there were 500 children dead inside, and it had automatically split itself into three camps, determined by the terrain, where they had set up with some of the millions of donated tents and tarpaulins, plastic sheeting, bits of tin and whatever bedding they had been able to pull from the wreckage of their homes leaving their family members behind that had not escaped in time. Richard found some families sleeping with nothing, on the hillside of Canope vert, with their feet directed to a tree trunk to prevent them sliding down the hill in the night.
The Chamber of Commerce were amazing, the director herself making many trips in and out of the devastated city. Richard was given a vehicle, telephone and some money with which to operate. Everyone was just working flat out to try and bring some normality to the intense atmosphere of disaster. Every morning Richard and Andrew would go onto the rooftop of the Convent for some early morning solace that overlooked the camp and view of the entire city down to the harbour where some thirty ships were moored around the giant Red Cross ship that came and went every week. The derelict garden was cleared and pallets were brought in from the collapsed dock area to make the aerated bases for the open compost heaps that were immediately begun with the new staff selected from the refugee camp. All leaves were swept up daily by the women and bins were ordered and brought in on the food convoys that the director had arranged for the community at the Convent. When the trucks arrived with food the guard would have to beat back the refugees with a big stick. The nuns had set up an emergency clinic and it was going around that they had already the best make shift school in the city. Source separation had begun! The first and most important step in managing a fast turn round sustainable sanitation system. Richard and Andrew were whisked off one day by CRS to visit the largest camp in the city to survey the possibility of doing the same operation there. This camp was run by Sean Penn and consisted of 50,000 people who had swarmed over the entire city golf course to find refuge and a place to lay themselves down at night.
Luckily for the US military, they had moved very fast to get to the top of the hill on the golf course and set up one of their major coordination and security bases in that part of the city. The top fairway had been commandeered for a fleet of military vehicles and the club house a communications centre and weapons store. The security was fantastic and it was like walking into a military camp at a war zone. After this survey Richard was given a military vehicle to take him wherever he wanted to go.
Richard’s site was building momentum now with about seven staff and with his Chamber of Commerce driver he would daily hunt, when venturing out onto the roads that still weren’t blocked, for the large amounts of viable composting mediums that would be found lying about everywhere, to facilitate a suitable carbon nitrogen ratio for a successful thermophilic composting operation.
All the kitchen and cooked food waste from the overrun convent was diverted to the site and a delivery of standard Port au Prince buckets were installed in the latrines that were now complete with dry medium in buckets next to them. This medium was made up of the daily sweepings from the camp and all the fallen leaves at Canope vert. The residents of the camp quickly grasped the new idea of this kind of toilet and used them happily as there was no foul odour as there was found to be all over the city of Port au Prince. Richard adapted a urine separator of a vertically sliced through 5 litre juice bottle wired to the underside of the standard OXFAM squat plate which he had located stacked in their thousands at the UNICEF supply chain compound. All other equipment came through the CRS supply chain.
This meant that the waste from the five latrines could easily and cleanly be collected and deposited into the compost heaps twice daily with no smell, as the urine portion (pathogen free) was contained separately and used for irrigating the heaps before the first turn; to maintain a moisture balance of 50%. The remainder being diluted for use as banana tree fertilizer. (Now Richard’s toilet, marketed in the UK, has a Bio liner in the toilet and is just like removing a hoover bag onto your compost heap).
Each double pallet compost heap was built over a seven day period and then the next one started. No smell or flies were breeding due to the high temperatures generated by the thermophilic system; which renders the effluent pathogen free in a 14 day period.
Each heap was turned at the 14 day period taking a small amount of the predacious fungi from the previous heap to inoculate the new heap, to accelerate the rapid destruction of the human pathogens and the breaking down of all organic waste. Indeed at the time of turning this 14 day old product there was no evidence of the human effluent at all. It had completely disappeared! This is the miracle of thermophilic composting. Each double pallet at the end of the seven day building process contained the waste of 1,200 people! Somewhere! It had actually been broken down that fast and had the nitrogen banked in the newly forming fertilizer. There was no smell of ammonia escaping which would indicate nitrogen loss.
The site was running nicely with the paid managers, coutesy CRS, and Richard decided to advertise the process at the weekly WASH cluster meetings and to hold an open day at his site every Saturday. Andrew having now returned to Santo Domingo to carry out financial work for Food for life Global.
The site was so clean and free from smell, rats and flies that he was able to prepare a pizza feast for the first batch of NGO’s who were lining up to visit the site. A film crew had been bumped into at a gas station and the lunch time appointment and speech fully documented on film (film I available at www.vimeo.com) and was attended by some 35 people who sat and enjoyed the lunch (a rare thing in the face of the enormity of this disaster) before being taken to the waste management site.
At the end of his presentation speech, which is all about what this country needs and doesn’t need, Richard announced that if they all turned round they would see the compost site of New Directions Foundation right behind them. The heaps being only concealed by a covering of UNICEF tarps. Leading specialists from NGO’s were gathering weekly from Sweden, Norway, Germany, the UK and USA, Joe Jenkins (author of the Humanure Handbook) was soon on the scene having been invited by the group SOIL (who have been in Haiti five years) to see something NONE OF THEM HAD EVER SEEN. Also professor Bob Reed, whom Richard had met 12 years before, arrived from WEDEC (Western Engineering Development Committee) of Loughborough University, which advises NGO’s on appropriate technology.
He is held on this film personally stating that the Howard Higgins system of waste management and sanitation was the best to be found anywhere in Port au Prince. He was present for the awarding of certificates of proficiency to Richard’s compost managers, who have since both been awarded jobs, in the face of massive unemployment, with CRS. Bob was brought in by DIFID and UNICEF to do an appraisal of the looming sanitation disaster that was occurring in Haiti at this time and which is, at the time of writing this article, still at critical emergency, level RED.
Richard’s entire EcoSan enclosed system (can be one or two metre cubed) is now available in the UK from £500 as a flat pack and is manufactured at his micro farm in the green belt of north London, which is now advertising training courses through the Permaculture Association’s web site. For more information email: firstname.lastname@example.org and go to ecological sanitation and Food Security.
To view the 3 films Richard made, you can view them on vimeo.com email for password