Mitigating Haiti’s water emergency

Mitigating Haiti’s water emergency

In the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, access to clean water was nearly impossible. A New Jersey mayor responded to this emergency with a sophisticated act of generosity. James Luce reports from Rahway, New Jersey.

To listen to the full interview, please click here. 

Quentin Kelly is the chairman and CEO of World Water and Solar Technologies, near Princeton University. He’s got water on his mind, or perhaps the scarcity of it as a resource.

“It’s a very significant matter that is a specter that should be haunting us. Our whole system is set up for the purpose of supplying water, for irrigation, or for purifying water for drinking.”

He’s been around the world to see conditions on the front lines of the world’s disasters, and he’s seen the need for clean water with his own eyes.

A portable machine about the size of two desks, manufactured by World Water and Solar, uses sunshine to convert about 30,000 gallons of biologically polluted water into clean water each day. It also creates a 3.3 kilowatt array to generate electricity where there is no grid.

This was a big deal after the Haitian earthquake.

“On the day of the earthquake, I was able to reach my mother. I spoke to her within five hours of the earthquake,” says Nadine Leslie, from United Water, a water management company based in New Jersey. “There’s no recycling facilities in Haiti. We had to identify a solution.”

Thanks to a call from Jim Kennedy, mayor of Rahway, New Jersey, Nadine found her answer.

“The MobileMax Pure,” says Kelly, “which is the system which has been in use down in Haiti, was of such emergency use, that fifteen Red Cross services from around the world were backing their water tanker trucks up to our machine to take water immediately following the earthquake. We were the only supply of clean water.”

Ten months after the earthquake in Haiti, for the first time ever, there was a devastating epidemic of cholera, a waterborne disease.

“Cholera is a constant threat,” says Kelly. “Clean water is what you need to prevent it, and frankly, to cure it. It takes a little longer if you don’t have the antibiotics, but it’ll stop it. The water that was carrying the necessary cholera pathogens would have been cleaned within two minutes if it had gone through our machine. The epidemic that is plaguing Haiti could have been stopped, just as we did in Darfur.”

Over the following sixteen months, 7,050 people died, and  531,000 people fell ill – five percent of the entire population of Haiti. According to a spokesman from the United Nations, this was the worst disaster they ever encountered.

“Only three percent of the water in the world is not saline,” says Kelly. “Three percent of the water is fresh. But of that, about half is glacial, and therefore unusable. Of the remaining one and a half percent, nearly three-quarters is contaminated. Now you’re down to three-quarters of a percent.”

“When Katrina struck the American south, the governor of Mississippi’s office called the governor’s office in New Jersey, and asked if they could find engineers who could come down to Mississippi to help. It was a terrible situation. Their pipes were all busted, and the water would quickly become contaminated when the power goes off. We were asked and of course I said, ‘Yes, we have water engineers who will be very happy to go down.’ We made these arrangements.”

As they were preparing to go to Mississippi, Kelly was in for a surprise. One of his employees took him aside.

“He said ‘Look what I’ve been working on.’ We took that prototype, put it on a trailer, trucked it down to Mississippi, and we were the only clean water source for the town of Waveland, Mississippi. For seven months, we supplied water off the back of our truck. We could do 15,000 gallons of purified water. People were pulling off of Interstate 10. They were coming from all over to get the clean water from our truck, because we supplying the water for some 100 trailers. For a school, they asked us, can we use the water? That was the genesis of this.”

A trip to Africa changed everything.

“I was in the Sudan back in 1984,” says Kelly. “I saw Ethiopians coming across the desert, standing outside of Khartoum. They were dying from lack of water and lack of food. I was with the national water resources director of Sudan. I said ‘Isn’t there anything to be done?’ He said ‘What? We have no electricity for the grid here. We have no diesel. We have nothing.’”

“I came back to the United States and I went to Princeton University. I said, ‘Who are the smartest guys you have who want to work with me on developing something that will pump water from sunshine?’ Five individuals who had worked on the NASA space shuttle research and development program volunteered and came to work with me in my barn. We spent Friday nights, Sunday nights, whenever anybody was free. It took a long time. Ultimately, we came up with a system that was really quite different.”

Twenty-five years after those moonlighting sessions, Quentin Kelly connected with Rahway, New Jersey mayor James Kennedy. Kennedy was not thinking about water.

“The opportunity came up for me through United Water,” says Kennedy, “and through Suez Environment, to attend the World Water Forum in Mexico City. There was a one-minute speech called ‘The Right to Water.’ I was intrigued by the mission statement which was to provide water for fifty percent of the world’s population that didn’t have clean water. It seemed monumental to me on one hand, and on the other hand, I had no real understanding of what that even meant. That is how I got originally involved with the water issue.”

“The evening of the earthquake in Haiti, everyone was moving into Port-Au-Prince. It’s an overloaded city, so they need to keep people in the rural areas. It’s not practical to build large facilities for the rural areas so that people stay there. The machine is ideal for keeping people in other parts of the country.”

James Kennedy called Nadine Leslie at United Water and found her willing and ready to get involved.

“Now that we have identified a solution,” says Leslie, “how do we find the funds? How do we get this to Haiti? United Water mentioned to Mayor Kennedy that we will definitely be part of this journey with him. We would contribute to the purchase.”

“The statistics are,” says Kelly, “that forty percent of the world’s population will not have any clean water to drink at all. Perhaps no water at all in the year 2025. That’s just twelve-and-a-half years away.”

In the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, all of the involved parties came together to pull off a miracle and set an example of the power a little seven-foot-square machine could have in saving lives and transforming communities in need.

If Kelly has his way, this machine will be everywhere. But for now, he’ll just have to settle for many of the world’s hotspots. 

– Reported by James Luce for America Abroad

The Global Water Challenge / Produced by Joseph Braude, Linda Gradstein, Constanze Letsch, Jim Luce, Michael Rhee, and A.C. Valdez / Additional production help was provided by Flawn Williams / Web producer: Javier Barrera / Photography: IRIN PhotosJonathan Kalan, Jim Luce, Adam Reeder, and Michael Rhee.