Saturday Series: An Interview with Gigi Pomerantz

By Lee Davies

In our new Saturday Series, we interview inspiring people our readers have nominated. These people are working on the frontlines to improve the global food and agricultural systems. Want to nominate someone?  E-mail your suggestions to Danielle Nierenberg!

Gigi Pomerantz (Photo Credit: Linda Sechrist)

Name: Gigi Pomerantz

Affiliation: Youthaiti

Bio: Gigi Pomerantz is the executive director of Youthaiti, a nonprofit promoting ecological sanitation in Haiti. Ms. Pomerantz founded the organization in 2008.

Why did you begin work in Haiti? And what led you to focus on sanitation?

My work in Haiti began in 2006 when I traveled on a medical mission to the rural village of Duchity in Grand’Anse. During our first day there we met with local teachers, health agents, and the one physician who lived in the village to do a ‘health needs assessment.’ They listed sanitation as one of their top five priorities for improving health.

For the next five days we saw 1,400 patients and treated every single one for intestinal worms and at least 50 percent for other gastrointestinal problems, including a lot of diarrhea. It became clear to me that this need was real. As a nurse practitioner, my focus has always been on prevention, and sanitation is prevention at its most basic level. Prevent the water that you drink from becoming contaminated, and you save the lives of millions of children who die from childhood diarrhea.

After the completion of Youthaiti’s projects, how will communities continue these sanitation programs?

We are introducing several methods of ecological sanitation that should be sustainable for even the poorest of the poor. Currently we encourage two methods of household sanitation: the Arborloo shallow pit composting latrine, and the Humanure bucket toilet. An Arborloo costs about $60 to construct with a concrete squat plate and a movable shelter. A Humanure bucket toilet could cost as little as $2.50 if they just squat over it, or $15 with a toilet seat. Both methods create compost. Arborloos compost directly in the ground, where a tree can be planted. Humanure toilets provide humanure, which can triple or quadruple garden yields and increase family income.

We also have built 17 community urine-diverting toilets to serve schools and other gather places, such as markets and bus stops.

How do you involve communities in your projects?

In every community in which we work, a local organization is identified to be our partner and to be responsible for the public toilets when we leave. Most often it is either a group of peasant farmers, or a group of young adults working for the development of their community. All of our staff members are Haitian, so they easily make connections in these communities.

When construction of a public toilet is finished, we hold a community ‘inauguration.’ We invite everyone in the community to learn about ecological sanitation, we review hand-hygiene and household sanitation, and we involve as many people as possible in a fun and educational afternoon.

How did Youthaiti respond to the 2010 earthquake?

The areas in which we work were very far from the earthquake. However, there were a lot of internal refugees immediately following the earthquake, as people returned to their families. We distributed emergency food aid to over 200 families that had absorbed extended family.

We also did cash-for-work projects to give people an opportunity to earn some money. However, our main priority continued to be our programs of sanitation and community gardening—because in this remote rural area, no one else was paying attention.

Since cholera hit Haiti in October of 2010, what has been Youthaiti’s reponse?

Youthaiti has been concerned about the spread of diarrheal illness since our inception, as that was our ‘raison d’être,’ to prevent illness amongst the most vulnerable, especially the almost 10 percent of children who die before the age of five. We have been promoting hygiene, especially hand-washing and proper treatment of water, as an integrated part of our programming from the beginning. When cholera peaked in the rural areas where we work, there was a 20 percent mortality rate! People in rural Haiti do not have access to any medical care; prevention is the only way to save lives. We trained 120 people from 120 different communities to serve as ‘health agents’ and to promote prevention in their communities. We taught them about sustainable methods of sanitation, and cholera identification and treatment to prevent deaths. There have been no deaths reported since then.

What has been the largest barrier to implementing your programs? What innovations helped you overcome them?

I would say we have two main barriers. One is the same as any small non-profit: the challenge of finding enough funding to support the programs we dream of. We continue to do outreach to build our base of support, and we continue to seek foundation grants. This has been very challenging.

The second barrier is working in rural areas where inadequate communication limits access to news. We purchased, or had donated, laptops for our key personnel on the ground, and we have gained internet access in three separate locations: Port au Prince, les Cayes, and Duchity (way up in the mountains). Being able to speak regularly keeps me more on top of things, but unfortunately is not a substitute for being there face to face.

Is it possible for the Haitian government to achieve national sanitation?

I do not believe it is even a goal of the Haitian government to achieve national sanitation. Non-centralized systems, and especially systems that do not use water, make much more sense for the 60 percent of the population that live in rural Haiti.

Do you have plans for expansion?

Youthaiti has started to build a Center for Sustainable Development in rural Grand’Anse. We would like it to become the place for young people to learn about sustainable sanitation, water usage, and permaculture methods of gardening. We also hope to partner with volunteers from the U.S. We need sustained donors to make this a reality.

For more information on Youthaiti, click here.

Lee Davies is a research intern with the Nourishing the planet project.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE.

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