Haiti | © Helvetas Haiti

Municipalities to the Forefront: Ensuring Sustainable Water Services in Haiti

BY: Jane Carter - 08. March 2023
© Helvetas Haiti

All that one hears of Haiti lately is of violence, especially of armed gangs now controlling large parts of the capital, Port-au-Prince. Helvetas has been working in Haiti for thirty years, navigating the many security challenges that accompany carrying out international development projects in the country.

Lucien Blaser, the International Adviser for the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) project REGLEAU, which is implemented by Helvetas, has lived in Haiti for the last five years. He’s based in the town of Jacmel, on the southern coast.

Below, Lucien shares insights on managing risks and how Helvetas is ensuring sustainable water services in Haiti.

Daily life in Haiti

Living and working in Haiti requires constant conflict-sensitive management, staying fully aware of local power dynamics. For example, since the roads from Port-au-Prince to Jacmel are under gang control, Lucien must travel via United Nations-organized flights. In this setting, security takes precedence over carbon footprint, although this also means that visits to Port-au-Prince are kept to the essential. There is always a risk in working in fragile countries; what is important is minimizing that risk as far as possible.

Lucien said he is glad to be based outside Port-au-Prince, where security risks are high. He feels well connected and generally welcome within Jacmel and the surrounding community — notably within the four municipalities in which the project operates most intensively.

The population in this area is around 196,000 people. Lucien has learned to speak fluent Creole, the language of daily communication amongst most Haitians. In addition to having conversations in Creole with his colleagues, municipal staff and other local opinion leaders, his fluency also helps him read the mood and break tensions with jokes where appropriate.

The trust and respect that Lucien and the project have built up locally is not only conducive to personal security — it is fundamental to its operation.

«What I like about my work is that through the entry point of water, you must think beyond, to the whole system of government service provision. Unless you do that, it can never be sustainable.»

Lucien Blaser

Demonstrating that decentralized water governance works

All-year access to clean and affordable water is a luxury for many, if not most, Haitians. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 6 of safe water piped to all homes by 2030 seems increasingly out of reach. In rural areas around Jacmel, access rates are even decreasing, despite a variety of interventions over the years, especially by different NGOs and philanthropic agencies.

Responsibility for water infrastructure in the country lies with the National Directorate for Water and Sanitation (DINEPA). Although sector reform introduced in 2009 sought to decentralize implementation to the municipal level, the devastating earthquake of 2010, hurricanes, outbreaks of cholera and other disasters — combined with institutional reluctance — have effectively stalled progress.

The full name of the REGLEAU project describes what it does: Renforcement de la Gouvernance Locale de l’Eau et de l’Assainissement en Haïti — reinforcing local governance of water and sanitation in Haiti. It seeks to build the capacities of the partner municipalities in planning their water supplies in a participatory manner, allocating resources, ensuring the maintenance of services — and generating revenue for them. This entails establishing a municipal Water Use Master Plan, drawing on a well-established Helvetas practice in Nepal.

Lucien spends far more time discussing these matters with colleagues, municipal staff and community members than he does in overseeing the installation of water infrastructure. Indeed, discussions go further than water supplies: the project is also advising the municipalities on fiscal planning, especially property tax (which is, by definition, progressive in taxing wealthier citizens). Funds from the national government are never very certain, so generating tax revenue at the local level is fundamental to ensuring fiscal stability. It is also, of course, a means of promoting accountability, as people expect to receive services if they pay tax. This is reminiscent of another project in Nepal, where through the entry point of an SDC agricultural initiative Helvetas also supported municipalities in developing their fiscal system to generate local revenue for local services, thus promoting local accountability.

“What I like about my work is that through the entry point of water, you must think beyond, to the whole system of government service provision," said Lucien. "Unless you do that, it can never be sustainable.”

Bringing practical experience to national-level policy discussions

The logic of REGLEAU is to establish practical examples of decentralized water governance in four municipalities, to learn what works and what doesn’t, and to bring this to the national level for wider application. Lucien is encouraged by the positive interest shown by DINEPA, which he attributes to a recognition that greater municipal funding for water supplies will reduce demand on the national budget — leaving DINEPA with the space to focus on important policy and regulatory matters.

How Helvetas Supports People in Haiti

Haiti is hit by natural disasters again and again. Our first and foremost priorities are the water supply, sanitation and agriculture.

WASH & Water Governance

The most vulnerable communities suffer from dirty and scarce water. Annually we help up to 500,000 people get new access to drinking water and basic sanitation.