Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Seattle NGOs echo concerns of USAID Haiti audit

by May 23rd, 2012

A program aimed at improving watersheds and water quality in Haiti and funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development hasn’t made inroads against major environmental risks and could be facing potentially expensive setbacks, according to an audit by the agency’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG). Discussing the audit’s concerns, representatives of two NGOs in the Seattle region which track Haiti respectively accented ongoing cholera risk from unsafe water; and the need for a deeper level of personal investment from citizens to augment external aid for environmental and public health problems. But underlying these challenges is a staggering unemployment rate which defies easy answers.

Haiti’s troubled environment is compounded by a weak government and wanting infrastructure resulting in part from the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Trash pick-up, environmental regulation, and water systems are especially problematic. Haiti’s watersheds have been long in decline due to decades of unchecked logging and charcoal demand, leaving the island with an estimated two percent forestation today, according to the audit. This boosts susceptibility to tropical storms and hurricanes which can bring flash floods to communities from eroded watersheds, taking lives and damaging property.

USAID in response launched a partnership with Chemonics International Inc. named the Watershed Initiative for National Natural Environmental Resources program (WINNER). It has $128 million in authorized funding and is designed to reduce environmental and economic vulnerability by rehabilitating watersheds and reducing flood risk along rivers. It also aims to train farmers in agricultural practices. Haiti produces less than half the food it consumes.

In its first two years of operation, the program has effectively promoted local watershed governance, fortified ravines and rivers against flooding, and dredged rivers and canals to help reduce flooding risks – while teaching modern agricultural practices. Low-tech early warning systems for floods were installed with the support of the program. Now in its third year, WINNER has so far obligated $45 million, spent $35 million as of September 2011, and helped implement 240 projects.

Mining sediments weakens river banks
However the audit reports that some activities by the local population threaten a $2.3 million infrastructure project completed in 2010 that dredged, widened and stabilized the banks of a 12-kilometer stretch of the Grise River. The Grise River has the greatest potential of causing catastrophic flooding in Haiti’s capital city Port-au-Prince, which in 2009 had an estimated population of about 900,000.

Unemployment is at 41 percent and building materials are in great demand since the January 2010 Haiti earthquake. Residents can earn $10 per hour mining sediment from the Grise River used by builders, double the $5 per hour national minimum wage. But this greatly weakens gabions which line and reinforce the river banks, causing them to collapse in some parts.

And lacking centralized trash pick-up many people dump their garbage in the river where it collects along dredged out sections, further heightening the risk of flooding. Waste management has been a long-running problem in Haiti, worsening sanitation and endangering the environment. NGOs have tried unsuccessfully to mitigate the problem.

Poor practices persist
Despite an early report identifying the consequences of sediment-mining and dumping activities, The USAID audit reported that Chemonics officials have been slow to take action and have yet to convince the government to create regulations. Company officials acknowledged that if nothing is done soon the river could become a high flood risk again in as little as three years.

Environmental, water assessments skipped
Proper environmental assessments were not conducted in several WINNER projects, including the Grise River irrigation system and the Boucanbrou drainage canal rehabilitation. The latter is home to 104 species of birds, 10 of which were classified as vulnerable and four as “near threatened.”

Chemonics failed to test water quality and drinkability for their spring-fed potable water projects. Since higher levels of arsenic have been detected in some areas of Haiti, water testing can be vital. Even low levels can cause health problems such as damage to the nervous system and blood vessels, blindness and reproductive problems.

World Vision official underscores Haiti’s potable water problem
Issa Bitang Tiati, World Vision Haiti country program manager, explained that the country faces key challenges when it comes to water quality. World Vision is a 62-year old global nonprofit based out of Federal Way, Wash., and provides relief in more than 90 countries. In an email, Tiati explained:

“Access to clean water is very low, the quality is inadequate … Haiti’s sewer systems and wastewater treatment are nonexistent. In rural areas, water systems have often fallen into disrepair. Existing public water infrastructure systems do not provide any water service at all, or provide service only to those close to them. In almost all urban areas, water supply is intermittent. Lack of clean water and sanitation systems contributes to very high health risks, including exacerbation (of) the cholera outbreak.”

Contractor has also failed to prevent pesticide misuse
Chemonics has also failed at promoting safe pesticide use or providing an environmentally safe alternative. Farmers were found to use unsafe practices in all stages: mixing, dosage, application, storage and disposal. The widespread misuse of pesticides is due to a lack of comprehensive training and oversight from Chemonics, the audit reports.

Recommendations and Response
In the audit USAID’s Office of the Inspector General made 12 recommendations, most of which prompted agreement from USAID/Haiti officials. These included implementing environmental assessments and oversights, developing a sustainability plan for the Grise River, and other measures to fix inadequacies found within the audit.

USAID said an assistant to the environmental officer will be hired by August 2012 and that they have already taken measures to increase environmental oversight. They said they will begin coordinating with the government on infrastructure problems before continuing work on the Grise River.

World Concern spokesman: Haitians must get more invested
Despite USAID’s planned responses to the audit and the WINNER program’s successes to date, it will be a long road to recovery for Haiti. Derek Sciba, a spokesman for the Shoreline, Wash.-based nonprofit World Concern, which works on improving agriculture in Haiti, said aid programs operating there should not plan for immediate success.

“It will take long term investment in the lives of the people at a very deep level in order for the long term future of Haiti to become brighter…We need to invest in the potential within communities and have people within the communities invested (in order to) see their communities reach a new place.”

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