03/22/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Bottom's Up for Haiti's Water Future

When Christopher Columbus landed on the mountainous Caribbean island of Hispaniola in 1492, he marveled at its thick, varied forests "that seemed to touch the sky." Today, on the Haitian side of the island shared with the Dominican Republic, all but 2% of the forest cover is gone, has been chopped down for lumber, land clearance for colonial sugar cane plantations and small family farms following Haitian slaves' triumphant 1804 war of independence from France, and today for use as cooking fuel charcoal by desperately-poor Haitians.

During tropical storms, Haiti's deforested hillsides convey violently-rushing waters that trigger deadly mudslides, clog and contaminate freshwater streams and lakes with eroding topsoil and sewage, and rush off to the sea too quickly to replenish Haiti's overdrawn groundwater resources.

Abject water poverty is rampant in Haiti. Nearly half of all Haitians are among the world's 1 billion without satisfactory access to clean drinking water; over two-thirds are counted in the 2.6 billion without adequate sanitation. Only one-fourth of city dwellers have plumbing connections, and service is unreliable. Each day means foraging for enough water for drinking, cooking, and cleaning from water tanks, street vendors, and wells, by illegally tapping water mains, and as a last resort, drawing from unclean streams and ditches. Water is the main source of Haiti's terrible illness and mortality rates -- average life expectancy is only 53.

The loss of water-retaining forests and soil erosion takes a further toll by shrinking the nation's arable cropland and harvests. Climate change makes Haiti's hydraulic miseries even worse by exacerbating storm frequency and intensities, and churning up giant sea swells that spill far inland.

Yet there is an even more critical, though less visible, priority for tackling Haiti's endemic water poverty than deforestation and climate change: The lack of sustainable institutional organization to implement and govern whatever water infrastructure the country has. In many of the water poorest parts of the world constructing physical water structures is the easiest part of solving the water equation; ongoing maintenance is what has been so intractable.

Above all, therefore, it is imperative that Haiti's water post-earthquake designers focus on affordable, vital, small-scale projects that invest the local communities they serve into taking responsibility for their physical and financial maintenance. Successful development models exist elsewhere that can be applied in Haiti.

Like the urban 'condominium" approach pioneered in the slums of Brazil and adapted in the Philippines and elsewhere, bulk sewerage services and drinking water can be delivered at wholesale costs to distribution points in urban neighborhoods. Local leaders then manage street by street in allocating the burdens of paying for the service and maintaining the internal piping network, which is often simply designed using flexible materials that are shallowly buried so that it can be easily-repaired by local plumbers. In traditional, centrally-managed systems, outside meter readers and water bill collectors are often assaulted when they show up. Within the condominiums, communities police themselves--and have incentives to do so as long as the government's basic bulk services remain adequate.

Haiti's re-building should also serve as a real world laboratory for trying out other of the myriad innovative smaller scale technologies, from mobile, solar-powered water purification devices to pond-scale organic wastewater treatment methods, that are trying to gain traction to help solve the wider world freshwater crisis.

Local water committees in some of Haiti's rural areas and small towns have already been successful. Water committees can manage water supply pumps, hire plumbers to do repairs, and implement very low maintenance pit latrines to help sanitation, for instance. Domestic plans that were afoot to expand them when the quake hit should be revived.

Managing local water has been a building block of institutional governance throughout history, most famously so in the 13th century Dutch water boards that managed reclaimed land and were adopted as the representative governing model for the Dutch Republic three centuries later. The oldest ongoing democratic institution in Europe is Valencia Spain's water court, where elected judges have been adjudicating irrigation water disputes for over a thousand years. In rural Afghanistan and eastern Iran, respected village water foremen are still selected annually to set and enforce watering schedules.

Building sustainable local water institutions is both a prerequisite, and complement, to alleviating Haiti's water poverty and meeting its long-term challenge of 'climate-proofing' its critical water infrastructures and ultimately, perhaps through carbon credits and other tools, finally re-foresting its landscape.

Steven Solomon is the author of WATER: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization (HarperCollins 2010).