Wednesday, February 17 2010
EVANSVILLE — As international efforts continue to heal, feed and shelter victims of the earthquake that killed more than 200,000 Haitians and displaced millions more, an Evansville couple are helping supply clean drinking water.
Five days after the Jan. 12 earthquake struck, Joe and Jenny Smith flew from St. Louis to work with Potters For Peace, an organization that teaches locals to make, assemble and distribute inexpensive ceramic filters that provide families with safe drinking water now and for years to come.
Even before the earthquake, illnesses and death from dirty water plagued Haiti, one of the world's poorest countries.
The situation is critical now and will become worse, the Smiths said. A volunteer physician told them, "For all we can do for these people now, they'll still die if they don't have clean water."
The couple recently returned after three weeks working in Haiti and the Dominican Republic with Potters For Peace, a nonprofit organization based in Brisbee, Ariz.
Joe Smith took leave from Oakland City University, where he has taught ceramics for 31 years. He spent his time outside Santiago, Dominican Republic, working 13-hour days with local potters in an established ceramic filter operation to expand operations and increase production.
Jenny Smith, a former international aid worker who most recently operated an art gallery in Evansville, moved into a massive tent city in Jacmel, Haiti. She helped distribute the clay filters made 150 miles away at the factory in Santiago where her husband was working.
Since the quake, an estimated 2,000 clay water filters have gotten to Haitians, more are waiting to be shipped and the Santiago operation has double production, promising an increased flow of filters moving into Haiti in the future, said Jenny Smith.
The couple plan to return this summer to help set up one or two new local operations to make clay purification systems in Haiti. While they're home, they'll work to raise money for the factories, estimated to cost about $60,000 each.
That's nothing compared to what it will take to build water systems for the cities, suburbs and villages that eventually will rise from Haiti's rubble. The ceramic filters do offer an immediate solution for families.
The filter, developed in Guatemala in the early 1980s, looks something like an oversized terra cotta flower pot without drain holes. It's made from clay mixed with prescribed amounts of sawdust, rice husks or other suitable combustible materials available locally.
When fired, the combustible material burns out, leaving a porous vessel that allows water to pass through while filtering out particles. A coating of colloidal silver painted on the inside kills bacteria.
How effective are they? The filters "effectively eliminate 99.88 percent of most waterborne disease agents," according to Potters For Peace's Web site, www.pottersforpeace.org.
Fitted with a plastic lid, the fired clay unit slips like an oversized coffee filter into a large manufactured plastic storage bucket equipped with a spigot at the bottom. Each can hold several gallons of water, which filters through at a rate of up to 21/2 quarts per hour.
"If you fill it up at night, by the morning you'll have enough water ready for a family," Jenny Smith said. "We used one in Haiti, in the tent camp and we never got sick. As a matter of fact, I thought the water tasted better than what we drink (from the tap) here in Evansville."
Depending on the region and local resources, the entire unit costs between $15 and $25, and replacement filters typically run between $4 and $6, according to Potters For Peace.
The Smiths first worked with Potters For Peace in 1999, when the organization helped set up ceramic filter operations in Managua, Nicaragua, as that city struggled to recover from Hurricane Mitch.
Since then, the organization has helped set up operations throughout Central America and in areas around the world lacking clean water.
The factories often are open-air structures consisting of mixing areas, clay presses (using concrete molds and hand-pumped hydraulic truck jacks), drying racks and kilns.
Locals own and operate them as businesses, providing not only clean water, but also employment for the potters and others needed to make and distribute them.
Jenny Smith said she's heard stories about looting in neighborhoods and violence at food distribution points, "but I never felt endangered and I never saw any violence," she said. "I think about how the Haitians I saw helped us and helped each other."
She doesn't blame starving people for being angry.
"There were warehouses full of water and food and it was not being distributed, and there were a lot of communities not getting what they needed," she said.
"I found it very frustrating. Once, when I held a child, I remember thinking, 'This child may not be living in two weeks.'"
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