Link of the Day 042108: Water Trucks in Haiti [PBS Frontline]

Filling our water tank
A Truck delivering water to our offices in Haiti.

Part of a 2004 PBS Frontline story by Shoshana Guy on the Struggle for Water in Haiti. [Full story: Flash Version | Text Version]

Water Trucks – “God Before Water”

Massive water trucks, belching black smoke and sloshing water down their sides, dominate the teeming streets of Port-au-Prince. The trucks, which can carry 3,000 gallons, are painted in bright greens, oranges and yellows with the business names displayed on the windshields in big blocky letters. Some have religious names, like Merci Jehovah and Gradier Dieu. Other truck owners like to rhyme their own name or that of a celebrity with l’eau, the French word for water: Madou Eau, Joe’s Eau and Ronaldo-Eau.

The business of trucking water began in the early 1970s. And what started as an enterprising idea involving a few trucks has turned into a huge and profitable business. The trucks have become one of the main distributors of water throughout the city. They deliver to anyone with a cistern. Private homes and institutions order trucks of water to meet their daily cooking and cleaning needs. Individuals that own cisterns in poor neighborhoods buy a truck of water, then sell it to others by the bucket. And big water companies, like Sweet Water, for example, buy the trucked water, treat it, then sell it as drinking water.

A truck of water can cost anywhere from $30 to well over $100 for the consumer, depending on where in the city you are located. Port-au-Prince rises at a steep angle from the sea; the higher up the hill you are, the more you pay for water.

I spent several days hanging around the truck filling stations, trying to get a sense of the profitability of the business and hoping a driver would take me along on a delivery.

I finally found my ride at a filling station named Penguin. After getting permission from the company officials, I walked out into the trucking yard. The sun beat down relentlessly. A small tin shack served as a restaurant. Every 15 minutes, empty trucks pulled under the four huge white pipes that gushed water pumped from a 200-foot well. While the drivers waited their turn to fill, fights broke out regularly about who was in line first.

No one seemed eager to have me along, but after about 45 minutes, the driver of Dieu de Vant Eau, which translates as “God Before Water,” agreed to take me. God Before Water is a beat-up white truck with orange and blue stripes and a huge cross on the door. I happily climbed up and squeezed in with the driver, Erik Orlis. He was a skinny man with an antelope-like face who constantly wiped his brow with a blue rag. The truck trembled and shimmied into gear, and we were off. Orlis told me that God Before Water can make between $3,000 and $4,000 a month. Orlis takes 10 percent of that, making his wage between $300 and $400 a month. In a country where the average wage is a dollar a day, this is big money.

We bumped along the road, and I envisioned an interesting ride through the city, but the fun was over before we even started. Orlis and God Before Water were only delivering to a kindergarten around the corner. I guess that’s why he agreed to take me.

Back at Penguin, chief engineer Roosevelt Poteau claimed that the water trucks were not profitable because Penguin’s overhead was too high. “The [cost of] petrol rises, and the cost of electricity is too much. We are not making a profit from the water trucks,” he informed me. But based on how much money Orlis and God Before Water seemed to be making, I was skeptical.

At Baron filling station across town, the trucks were lined up 20 deep. People gathered to bathe and collect water from the runoff under the trucks. A skinny girl in underpants stood under the stream of water leaking from the truck while a teenaged girl in a strapless bra top soaped her hair. When the full trucks moved off and the new ones pulled in, there were a few seconds of water gushing out at full power, and everyone ran to fill their buckets. “Get lost,” a trucker screamed at them. “You’ll be run over or electrocuted.” The water collectors scattered, but resumed washing and filling their buckets seconds later. “This is the closest place to get water, and it’s free,” 14-year-old Joanne Mica told me.

I walked the line of trucks to see if I could find owners and drivers who wanted to talk profit. After speaking with several recalcitrant owners, I found Lucien Pierre. Pierre is a sparkly-eyed 65-year-old who spent years in Brooklyn driving trucks and cabs. He returned to Haiti in 1980 when a friend told him of a profitable business he could get into selling water from trucks. He has expanded slowly and now owns four trucks. He told me that his drivers are making roughly the same as Orlis but that after all of Pierre’s overhead, his business is making him the equivalent of roughly $300 a day. During the rainy season, business is slow but the rest of the year makes up for it.

“What if CAMEP [Centrale Autonome Metropolitaine d’Eau Potable, government water service] gets organized and starts getting water to the people?” I asked, referring to the government-owned water service.

“We’ll make trouble for them,” he laughed. I told him that Penguin filling station said they weren’t making money. “They’re lying,” he responded simply.

At the three filling stations I visited, all the managers said they were filling 50 to 60 trucks a day at around $3 a truck. That calculates to gross earnings of roughly $900 to $1,000 a week. And since there is no water ministry to regulate the trucking business, they pay no taxes on the water.

“I will say that it is a free business for them to have water from the ground,” said the general secretary of CAMEP, Benoit Frantz. CAMEP wants to install meters but since they are also a commercial enterprise and not a water ministry, some do not feel that they have the authority to regulate the water truck business. “Here we have an organization that is taking water and selling water, and this would be disloyal competition to ask these purveyors of water to pay a tax,” argued economist Gerald Jean-Baptiste.

In all fairness to Poteau, Penguin’s chief engineer who said the water trucks are not profitable, Jean-Baptiste did say that there are so many trucks in the business now, many are complaining that their profits are diminishing.

“But it’s a good business?” I asked Pierre.

“If I leave New York to come and get it, sure it’s good,” Pierre responded, smiling.