June 2010, Vol. 22, No.6

Restoring Lifelines in Haiti

News art

It was late one March afternoon, and Dennis Warner had just left a tense meeting with the Haitian leaders of a 2300-person refugee camp that had been built on a 16-ha (40-ac) garbage dump following the devastating 7.0 earthquake 2 months earlier.

Catholic Relief Services (Baltimore), the agency Warner represents, had agreed to pay locals $5 a day to dig latrines and shower drains at the camp. The committee responsible for coordinating the workers was now also demanding payment.

With about $7 million to spend on humanitarian relief to help the people of Haiti get through the initial trauma of the earthquake, the relief agency balked. “Our policy is that only the persons doing actual labor get paid,” Warner said.

The committee leaders’ request was denied.

It was just another difficult moment in Warner’s long day as Catholic Relief Services’ senior technical advisor for water and sanitation.

“Restoring water and sanitation following a major disaster is never easy,” Warner said later. “But in Haiti, the challenges are all magnified by the great poverty and the poor quality of the public works before the earthquake.” 

Immediate Considerations

Warner would know. While working for Catholic Relief Services, the World Health Organization (Geneva), and other agencies, the Stanford University-trained Ph.D. has responded to a half-dozen major disasters in recent years, including the 2004 Thailand tsunami and earthquakes in Pakistan and India, among others.

When a major disaster strikes, Warner’s group’s first job is to provide for the victims’ immediate water and sanitation needs. This includes getting potable water to their makeshift camps and constructing latrines, hand-washing sites, and showers, the latter of which, Warner acknowledged, are little more than “privacy enclosures” where a refugee can take a bucket of water to clean up.

The goal is then to move as quickly as possible into recovery. This involves getting experts on the ground to work with government officials in assessing water and sanitation system conditions and ascertaining the resources needed to make repairs.

More than 2 months after the Haiti earthquake, however, many of the hardest-hit areas in and around the capital city of Port-au-Prince remained in emergency response mode, with more than 400 tent cities still in operation. “With governmental agencies functioning at reduced levels, the Haitian government has been unable to mount much of a response,” Warner said.

When it comes to water and sewer, there is little to respond to. The privately operated water supply system in Port-au-Prince was limited even before the earthquake. For all intents and purposes, there is no sewer system in Port-au-Prince to repair. “Right now, there’s no long-term planning going on, because we are scrambling to meet the immediate day-to-day needs of the thousands of people around us,” Warner said.

It doesn’t always happen this way. After an 8.8 earthquake hit Chile on Feb. 27, the transition from catastrophe to recovery went much more quickly and smoothly. “The government told the aid community what they needed, the aid community got it, and the government knew where to deploy it,” said Bjorn von Euler, director of corporate philanthropy for ITT Corp. (White Plains, N.Y.), a pump manufacturer that partners with Mercy Corps (Portland, Ore.) on disaster relief efforts around the world.

One Step at a Time

In an exceptionally poor nation such as Haiti, the needs following a disaster are more basic than might even be imagined. Part of Warner’s group’s mission, for example, is to sensitize displaced residents about what they can do to maintain a sanitary environment. He said one of the biggest challenges his group faced 2 months after the earthquake was cleaning household trash and building debris from a nearby stone-lined drainage channel, which had become a breeding ground for rats, flies, and other disease-carrying species.

 “It’s not that people don’t understand basic hygiene,” Warner said. “But when you’re living in complete chaos, it’s harder to act in a socially responsible way.”

Aid workers, meanwhile, focused on making small, incremental improvements to living conditions, such as making fresh water available. The best way to do that, the experts said, is to set up self-contained water storage and distribution systems at the locations where displaced residents congregate. In practical terms, this meant locating 19,000-L (5000-gal) flexible bladders at the center of camp, where refugees can collect water for their households, often from a single tap. Tanker trucks deliver water to keep the bladders filled.

“The work we do does not rise to professional standards and would never be allowed in normal situations,” Warner said. “But it’s the best we can do, given the resources we have to work with and the magnitude of the situation.”

Even implementing a solution this simple presents numerous obstacles. One is transportation — moving the water and equipment to the people who need them.

“If you’re flying equipment in from another country, the airspace is typically bottlenecked in the first days immediately following a disaster,” von Euler said.

People’s good intentions often contribute to the logjam. For many groups, the first instinct is to send bottled water to disaster victims, which can be a frustration to those on the ground.

“Bottled water may be needed in the hours immediately after an emergency,” von Euler said. “But it occupies a great deal of space in a harbor or airport and takes so much time to distribute on the ground. If you can work with an existing well instead, you can get more water to more people quickly and make the space available for other critical supplies.”

To help ensure that they are truly serving disaster victims’ needs, ITT and other companies familiar with disaster relief tend to partner with experienced aid organizations that get their own people on the ground quickly. “They can see that an old well is caving in and can tell us what they need and where to restore supplies,” von Euler said.

Following the Haiti earthquake, for example, ITT flew pumps and several portable water treatment units to Santa Domingo in the neighboring Dominican Republic and then transported them via convoys to Port-au-Prince and other locations with identified needs.

Even then, workers could not move as freely as the images broadcast on television might suggest. “The security risks are high, which is why companies like ours retain security professionals to accompany us at all times,” von Euler said.

It’s not only workers who need to be protected. “When you’re deploying equipment, it must be installed, managed, and guarded as well,” von Euler said.

Moving to Longer-Term Solutions

The road to long-term, sustainable solutions to water and sanitation needs following a disaster also can be fraught with challenges.

“National governments aren’t generally eager to let an outside entity take charge of their infrastructure,” Warner said. “Finding solutions takes considerable negotiations between agencies, and it must include ways to integrate the local population into the rebuilding process. They’re the people who will be here after we’ve gone.”

“The most difficult part of the rebuilding effort is the logistics,” added Grant Brown, vice president of marketing and strategic partnerships at Parkson Corp. (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.), which manufactures water and wastewater treatment equipment.

Parkson is one of several companies that take an active role in the long-term water and wastewater treatment solutions in countries hit by disasters. Its employees also can get paid-time-off to join Engineers Without Borders (Boulder, Colo.) and other groups on water-related projects in developing countries.

On many of these projects, Parkson donates small, modular drinking water units that use tertiary sand filtration and other simple technologies to treat surface water to drinking water standards, Brown said.

Brown said it typically takes 6 to 12 months of lead time to design, build, and ship a single unit, each one of which is custom-built for the environment it will serve. “We must know the flow, size requirements, and other details before we begin design,” he said. “The only thing standard on this equipment is that it is designed to be robust enough to operate for decades with minimal maintenance.”

In Haiti, the process likely will take much longer. Warner predicts it will be the end of 2010 before the smaller camps in Haiti are closed and residents are moved to transitional camps with better living conditions, where they could remain for years.

“Even if it’s not permanent housing, it’s important to get people to some kind of shelter so that you can eventually employ them in rebuilding,” Warner said. He believes it will be at least 5 or 10 years before Port-au-Prince is rebuilt.

Companies that want to contribute in the meantime are wise to find experienced aid agencies to partner with and let the people on the ground tell them how best to help, both von Euler and Brown said.

That’s the approach the engineers at Burns & McDonnell (Kansas City, Mo.) are taking. They are partnering with the Kansas City-based Global Orphan Project to build orphanages in Haiti for children who have been orphaned or displaced by the disaster.

When considering long-term water and sanitation solutions for Haiti, von Euler said, “you can’t look at where their water and sewage systems were; you’ve got to look at where they should be. Whatever is installed will likely be better than what they had to begin with.”

“No one group can do it all,” Brown said. “But if everyone does something, we can make a difference.”

Mary Bufe, WE&T


Follow Your Nose

A dog trainer uses man’s best friend to detect illicit discharges, saving wastewater clients time and money

There are bomb-sniffing dogs, narcotic- sniffing dogs, and now — thanks to Scott and Karen Reynolds, founders of Environmental Canine Services LLC (Lansing, Mich.) — there are dogs trained to sniff out illicit discharges by detecting human waste and surfactants in drains and pipes.

Many Phase II municipal separate storm sewer systems almost solely rely on lab results as part of their illicit discharge detection and elimination efforts required under National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits. But Scott Reynolds argues that there are advantages to also using the dogs that he and his wife, Karen, have trained to find illegal connections. One of the dogs even has an 87% accuracy rate.

“There’s definitely a cost benefit, like when you’re investigating a stretch of pipes in a neighborhood,” Reynolds said. “If you have to test every single pipe connection, that could add up quickly. That could mean $100 a test, in addition to a 3-week waiting period. But with a dog, you can skip the intersections and the catch basins and just trace it to the source upstream. For court cases, you can use lab methods later to verify the dog’s results.” 

A Dog Like No Other

Reynolds said he and his colleague Dan Christian developed the idea to train dogs to do detection work while working for Tetra Tech (Pasadena, Calf.), an environmental engineering company.

“I have 12 years of training dogs for narcotic detection and finding missing people, both living and deceased,” Reynolds said. “[Tetra Tech] had been working with a client who was in a Phase II stormwater project. They were looking at every single pipe going to their county drains. The idea was to do rapid detection of these pipes. So I found [the company’s first detection dog] Sable and decided to train him to do illicit discharge detection.”

Susanne Kubic, a civil engineer for the surface water management division at the Genesee County (Mich.) Drain Commissioner’s Office, said Reynolds and Sable did save her agency time during the stormwater project.

“Using the dogs instead of having to come back [after] 2 weeks, 3 months, or a year to retest to see where the connection is coming from allowed us to just follow the trail and make eliminations quickly,” Kubic said. She said the county also did not have to keep taking samples back to Tetra Tech’s closest office in Lansing, which was almost 64 km (40 mi) away from Genesee County.

Kubic said in fact the only downside to using the dogs during the project was that the county was still required to do lab work to support the dog’s findings.

“I can’t say in my report, ‘Sable barked here,’” Kubic explained. “I still have to know how much [Escherichia coli] was there. I still have to do the testing.”

Kubic said that despite this disadvantage, the county was happy with the work Reynolds and Sable did.

“I think they’re great,” Kubic said.

Since leaving Tetra Tech and starting Environmental Canine Services 2 years ago with his wife, Reynolds has seen the company’s client list grow. They now charge clients $65/h for canine scent detection.

“We have worked with nonprofit organizations, watershed groups, and are in the planning stages of working with FB Environmental in [Portland] Maine, who we’re helping locate illicit discharges that are affecting the shellfish population, and small municipalities that keep getting intermittent results of varying E. coli levels,” Reynolds said.

Reynolds said they are even planning to expand their services. 

“We have the ability to train our dogs to search for other contaminants,” Reynolds said. “Another client wants us to do something related to birds and bats.”

Training the Best

All the dogs that work at Environmental Canine Services undergo rigorous training, but for Reynolds, the process really begins with choosing the right canine candidate.

“When you’re looking for a dog to do this type of work, the first thing you’re looking for is big drive,” Reynolds said. “It has to be very energetic when it wants to hunt for something, from beginning to end. It also has to have a natural curiosity — like when a dog sees a ball and you put it under a box, you want a dog that will still keep looking for the ball. And it has to be a working or sports breed. We’re dealing with some pretty rough terrain, and a smaller dog would not be good for the job.”

Finally, the dog has to pass a preliminary scent test, Reynolds explained.

“They have to be able to pick up the target scent, and we want to make sure they don’t have an aversion to it,” Reynolds said. “You don’t want a dog that wants nothing to do with [the target scent].”

Reynolds knew Sable — a formerly neglected German shepherd mix that Reynolds had found at the Mackenzie’s Animal Shelter (Lake Odessa, Mich.) — was the right dog for the job after he saw a video of him on the rescue’s Web site.

“The video had Sable sitting beside one of the volunteers,” Reynolds said. “He was focusing intensely on this tennis ball she had in her hand even though there were lots of dogs barking around him. But he didn’t care; he just focused on the ball,” he said. “Then when she tossed the ball toward a pond, he did this huge belly flop to catch it. I knew that with all that intensity, he was the right dog for this.”

To train Sable, Reynolds taught him to pick up two target scents.

“One is [municipal wastewater], which usually has some traces of detergent in it,” Reynolds said. “Then we wanted the dogs to be able to detect detergent separately without the human scent. That would allow us to detect illegal laundry connections.”

To teach dogs the difference between human waste and animal waste, Reynolds said he had to do the less than glamorous part of the job and “go out and collect as much domestic and wild animal scat as I could. We train the dogs to stay away from that.”

Reynolds said total training time for Sable took about 6 months for imprinting (where the dog learns a particular scent). Then he was ready for the field.

Since successfully training Sable, Environmental Canine Services has brought on board two more dogs: Sky, an Akita mix from a local animal shelter; and Logan, a rough-coat collie that the Reynolds rescued from a family that was going to euthanize him at 10 months old.

“As it turns out, [Logan] has a great nose,” Reynolds said.

Sky and Logan are done with the imprinting phase.

“They are now tracking down surfactant,” Reynolds said. “They actually like the smell.”

With such intensive training, Reynolds stands behind his dogs’ abilities, even arguing that Sable’s accuracy rate is better than the 87% that he has demonstrated.

“The accuracy rate is based on field trials where we knew what the conditions were,” Reynolds said. “The terrain included the scent of E. coli, ammonia, and surfactant. We then compared his detection to the lab results of more than 200 locations.”

Reynolds said the lab results showed when there were 1000 E. coli colonies in a sample, but it did not distinguish between E. coli from a human or animal source. That puts Sable at a disadvantage, Reynolds argued, because he was trained specifically to avoid waste from animals.

“What we’re trying to verify through microbial analysis [is] whether the E. coli is from a human or animal source,” Reynolds said. “I believe that if you did that, Sable’s accuracy rate would probably be closer to 95%.”

Reynolds said dogs never cease to astonish him with their talents.

“Every couple of months, I see what new amazing things dogs have been trained to do,” Reynolds said. “I read about one that was taught to detect bootleg DVDs that are coming in from China. I heard of wildlife researchers that are training dogs to detect endangered species that are too small to detect by normal methods. The possibilities with these guys are endless.”

 — LaShell Stratton–Childers, WE&T 


Canine Scent and Microbial Tracking Receives Award From WERF

Researchers and Environmental Canine Services LLC (Lansing Mich.) received an award from the Water Environment Research Foundation (Alexandria, Va.) for a collaborative research project designed to test and bring forward the technology of canine scent tracking (wastewater-sniffing dogs) to the tool box of stormwater managers and water quality researchers.

The City of Santa Barbara (Calif.) will collaborate with the University of California–Santa Barbara, along with the trained dog Sable, to conduct this research. This project brings academic research on microbial source tracking and private consulting on illicit discharge detection and elimination together with a municipality that is conducting extensive research on voluntary efforts to locate and mitigate contamination of recreational waters. 




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