Haiti Relief Workers: Solving Problems, Fighting Time

Problem solver

Proper and safe hygiene facilities are essential in any camp situation where the outbreak of disease is real threat. Photo by David Snyder for CRS

By David Snyder

Good emergency workers are, above all else, problem solvers. Every day here in Haiti CRS staff spend their time doing just that—finding quick, simple fixes to vexing problems.

It’s a process that takes many forms, often much time and sometimes frustration amid the hectic pace of disaster response. There are experts here from all over the CRS world who bring with them their skills in security and logistics, coordination and management, finance and shelter—and fit it like a ragged puzzle piece into the context of the Haiti response.

Yesterday I spent an hour with Paul Hicks, a CRS water expert here from El Salvador to help out. Pinched between a day of coordinating watera access for thousands of displaced people in the camps, and a coordination meeting among CRS staff, he had yet another problem to solve.

The Background: CRS is building latrines in the camps. After using these latrines, it is essential that camp residents have a place to wash their hands. Disease can spread rapidly in the crowded camps, and outbreak is in the back of everyone’s mind. CRS is working to place hand washing stations outside of each latrine as soon as possible.

Foot pump

CRS and Caritas water experts look over a design for a foot pump used to reduce the risk of disease spread by many people using the same tap. Photo by David Snyder for CRS

The Problem: Hand washing stations—as simple as a bucket of water on a stand—need a spigot to release water. If thousands of people each day use the same spigot, touching it with dirty hands, the risk of spreading disease is higher.

The Solution: Foot pumps. The best way to allow people to wash their hands without touching anything is to attach simple foot pumps that squirt tiny jets of water onto their hands, reducing the risk of cross contamination and, second, making it less likely that anyone would try to fill their own water bucket from the washing stations, an unsanitary practice and one that would quickly drain the small supplies of water.

While the idea of a foot pump is not new, Paul’s idea is. He wants to make a simple but rugged pump from locally available materials—a piece of rubber inner tube for the air bladder, a simple valve attached to the bladder on one end and a tiny quarter-inch pipe to channel the water up to the waiting hands.

Laying out his ideas at a local plumbing supply shop, Paul, two Caritas staffers working with CRS, and a bemused but engaged plumbing supply contractor hash out the details. The bladder would have to be sealed at one end—either with heat, or folded and bolted. It must be very rugged. A spring valve might not work; it needs more pressure than a small foot pump can provide. Half inch pipe won’t work; quarter inch pipe will provide more pressure. Picture a small bagpipe with only one pipe, and you’ll have an idea of how it would look.

The Challenge: Time. Always. How fast can we get 200 pumps designed, built, and installed in the camps? It rarely works as you want it to in emergencies, and this idea simply may not, given the constraints. The fallback plan is to use marine bilge pumps that would serve the same purpose. But are they available locally, are they durable enough, and would it be less expensive to build the inner tube pump? All of these questions have to be answered yesterday because thousands of people are crowded into camps around the city. They’re making do as best they can with the help of problem-solvers like Paul Hicks and the idea taking shape on the floor of a plumbing supply shop in Port au Prince.

David Snyder is a freelance photojournalist reporting from Haiti for CRS

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One Response to “Haiti Relief Workers: Solving Problems, Fighting Time”

  1. Haiti’s Only Earthquake Engineer | Googling God Says:

    […] Pat Robertson’s stupid comments about how Haitians deserved God’s wrath, to the large numbers of student relief workers who participated in an alternative spring break or another project, to the Haitian students […]

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