My guest today is Gigi Pomerantz, founder of YOUTHAITI. Welcome back to OpEdNews, Gigi.
JB: It's been almost four years since we last talked. Before we learn what you've been up to, please remind our readers what YOUTHAITI is and what it does.
GP: Youthaiti is a Wisconsin-based non-profit that has been working with young people in Haiti since 2007 on projects of ecological sanitation and sustainable agriculture. We build public composting toilets and promote household ecological sanitation, and create community demonstration gardens to show the effects of recycling nutrients back into the soil. Our programs also include sanitation and hygiene education in 27 rural schools reaching over 6000 children who live in some of the poorest, most isolated communities.
JB: YOUTHAITI was already on the ground when the 2010 earthquake hit. What was YOUTHAITI's role during that crisis?
GP: Youthaiti works in a rural area far from the earthquake zone. Immediately after the quake, there was a large migration of people away from the city back to their families in the countryside. However, these families were not financially equipped to help. Youthaiti provided emergency food and clothing for individuals who returned to the countryside with only the shirt on their back. We also provided some work projects to enable people to earn a little money to get on their feet.
However, our work has not primary been related to the earthquake or recovery. People in the countryside have long felt ignored by the centralized government out of Port au Prince. They have no electricity, no running water and no sanitation. From the beginning, Youthaiti has worked in rather isolated rural areas providing ecological sanitation solutions and a lot of outreach and education about sanitation and hygiene.
JB: Sanitation is a huge problem, not just in Haiti. In fact the UN recently declared World Toilet Day. Can you give us a bit of a global perspective, Gigi?
GP: 2.6 billion people in the world do not have access to a toilet. That is about 1/3 of the world's population. That means that they go in the bush, by a river, or anywhere they can find a modicum of privacy. This contaminates many of the water sources in the developing world.
Jack Sims, founder of the World Toilet Organization, declared November 19 World Toilet Day in 2008. This year, the United Nations has recognized this day officially. They had an important conference to discuss the implications of the lack of sanitation on public health. In many places, including Haiti, one child in eight dies before the age of five from diarrheal diseases, directly as a result of the lack of sanitation. It is the second leading cause of childhood mortality after pneumonia, which may also be attributed to the lack of sanitation, and at least four times higher than HIV/AIDS, which gets a lot more attention.
JB: Those statistics are astounding, Gigi. Having indoor plumbing is something that we Americans take for granted. It's hard to wrap my mind around the fact that so many lack something so very, very basic. Did having the UN recognize the seriousness of the problem help raise awareness?
GP: I think it's a start, but there is a LOT of work to be done. Funding for sanitation is still hard to come by. the Gates Foundation has funded projects to find the 'newest, best' toilet solution to capture nutrients and energy, but so far all the models are unrealistic for the developing world. What is needed are very simple, inexpensive solutions such as Humanure bucket composting toilets that people can have inside even the smallest homes, with community systems for composting. But one of the greatest challenges is promoting and distributing something so radically different for millions of people in urban slums and difficult to reach rural communities.
JB: The problem is so basic, and at the same time, so large. It's hard to think of how we can help. Most of us lack the resources of the Gates Foundation. Yet I can't believe that there's simply nothing we can do. Before we sink into utter hopelessness, Gigi, do you have any suggestions for us?
GP: Well, I always believe you start small. Jewish tradition teaches, if you save one life, you have saved the world. And so I have built Youthaiti by starting in one small village in rural Haiti, and now we are reaching over 20 villages. We teach one person to use a bucket composting toilet, and soon the whole family is using it. We provide a composting toilet for one village, and the next one is ready to use it too.
A community urine-diverting composting toilet costs about $7,000. Not cheap, by any means, but you don't need to be Bill Gates to help fund that. Perhaps your church or your school group can fund-raise for that.