Youthaiti: Developing Solutions for Ecological Sanitation
Jul 02, 2011 09:24AM
● By Linda Sechrist
Gigi teaching handwashing to children in Duchity
According to the United Nations, 2.6 billion individuals, or nearly 40 percent of the world’s population, lack access to adequate sanitation, and around 1.2 billion practice open defecation. During a 2006 medical mission, Gigi Pomerantz, a licensed nurse practitioner at Aurora UW Medical Group, in downtown Milwaukee, discovered the impact that poor sanitation and lack of clean water have on the citizens of Haiti, where 85 percent of rural residents do not have access to sanitation, and 70 percent lack access to potable water. By 2008, she would be founding a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, Youthaiti, to address the problem.
An Eye-Opening Trip to Haiti
For years, Pomerantz had dreamed of doing medical development work in Africa, but a serendipitous opportunity to visit Haiti on a medical mission with a local church group turned her attention closer to home. Haiti’s proximity and the relatively low travel cost allowed her to use vacation time to join the team from St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church, of Naperville, Illinois.
During the mission, Pomerantz and four other medical providers treated 1,400 patients from the village of Duchity. “Everyone was treated for worms, and many for stomach problems, diarrhea and poor appetite,” says Pomerantz, who was perplexed about why every patient had these types of problems.
“I discovered during a needs assessment that the majority of Haiti’s citizens practice open defecation behind bushes or in plastic bags that get thrown into abandoned lots or bodies of water,” Pomerantz recalls, “and spending time handing out medication for totally preventable diseases went against my model of prevention.”
Moving Forward to Create Youthaiti
Determined to address the need for good sanitation and access to clean water rather than return home and ignore it, Pomerantz began to search for others who could provide successful models of ecological sanitation. “My conversations with villagers were encouraging, because they displayed an interest in composting toilets and personal hygiene,” notes Pomerantz. She envisioned a nonprofit organization with the mission to support and encourage Haitian young people in the development of ecological sanitation, water source protection, hygiene education and community gardening in their own villages.
The daunting challenge of starting the nonprofit, raising funds, establishing partnerships and finding volunteers did not stop Pomerantz from moving forward. “I went back to Haiti in 2007 and took others with me, so we could visit Duchity and determine how we could accomplish our goals,” she advises.
Improving Sanitation and Agricultural Yields
That year, Pomerantz and her team worked with youth partners from the village to build the first public dry-composting toilets at theNational School in Duchity; to date, the group has installed 12. A dry composting toilet separates urine and feces by means of a special toilet bowl. The urine is collected in a tank and then “harvested” and diluted with water to be used as fertilizer. Solid waste falls into one of two chambers, where it is mixed with ash, soil or other organic matter. When that chamber is full, the toilet is moved to the second chamber and the first is sealed for one year. During this time, decomposition takes place and the material becomes safe, organic compost. The process is repeated. “According to work done in Malawi, Africa, this compost can increase yields up to seven times,” reports Pomerantz, who adds that it has tripled agricultural yields in Haiti.
Youthaiti has also installed more than 150 Arborloos—shallow-pit, household latrines covered with a concrete platform over a hole approximately one meter deep. Human waste is layered with yard waste, and in about nine months when the hole is nearly full, the platform is removed and reused, the remaining space is filled with dirt, and a fruit tree is planted to help provide food and income for the family. “Nothing is wasted; even the sterile urine is diluted and used as fertilizer for garden crops, which also helps to offset the costly expense of buying imported food,” advises Pomerantz.
Youthaiti’s one full-time employee is an agronomist who helps teach villagers how to maximize the fruits of their labors in community gardens. Six other part-time employees and a voluntary Haitian board keep programs functioning while Pomerantz is in Milwaukee.
Raising Awareness and Funds to Meet Urgent Needs
Due to the cost of an Arborloo—almost $70, or two months income for the average Haitian—Youthaiti is launching two additional projects that will help build self-sustaining businesses and jobs. “One of them is a sanitation business based on a World Toilet Organization model,” notes Pomerantz.
The problems of sanitation and clean water are now dire in Haiti; cholera is resurfacing and deaths are beginning to rise again. “The 250,000 who have been ill with cholera, and the 5,000 who died in the first wave [in late 2010], speak for an urgent need for people to learn how to protect themselves via proper sanitation, treating water, and hand washing,” she says.
The simple hygiene and cholera prevention and safety practices taught by Youthaiti through organized teams can save thousands of lives. “On every project, whether public dry composting toilets or household Arborloos, community education is provided. It is the very core of our program,” Pomerantz emphasizes.
Funding, which consists mainly of tax-deductible donations, is insufficient to give toilets to everyone who needs them. “We need to create a financial vehicle and find entrepreneurs who are looking for a business opportunity to sell composting toilets,” comments Pomerantz. “You can’t just hand people something, you need to provide a livelihood for them,” she emphasizes.
Pomerantz has returned to Haiti a dozen times since her first visit. With much work still ahead, such as the hygiene education necessary before the 2011 hurricane season, she seeks volunteers and funding. To help spread the word in the Milwaukee area, Pomerantz speaks in schools and churches. Haitian partners visit at least once a year and also speak in schools to inform young people about problems facing their neighbors, only 700 miles from the U.S. “While we are doing public outreach, we also talk about some of Haiti’s interesting history, which few in the U.S. know about,” advises Pomerantz.
Although Pomerantz needs no reminders of her purpose and mission, she frequently reads the words of Rabbi David J. Wolpe, written on a plaque posted on her wall: “There is a marvelous story of a person, who once prayed before God, their heart breaking from the pain and injustice in the world. ‘Dear God,’ they cried out, ‘look at all the suffering, the anguish and the distress in the world. Why don’t you send help?’ God responded, ‘I did send help. I sent you.’”
Pomerantz takes those words to heart, saying, “I feel like the ‘you’ God referred to is me.”
To invite Gigi Pomerantz to speak at a school, church or other civic group meeting, email [email protected] For volunteer opportunities, email [email protected] See photos and learn more about Youthaiti at Youthaiti.org.