Frontline World

HAITI - The Struggle for Water, October 2004
a FRONTLINE/World Fellows project

Haiti: The Struggle for Water
The CommunityThe FamilyThe Water TrucksThe Street SellersThe HospitalThe Vodou Ceremony
IntroductionMore Info On The EnvironmentMore Info On The Water SystemReact
Boy selling water on the street; Boy sitting in car with water packets; Woman giving out water in the traditional way

THE STREET SELLERS-- "L'eau, L'eau, L'eau"

Wherever there is slowed traffic in Haiti, you can usually hear the staccato call, "L'eau, l'eau, l'eau." "Water, water, water." These are the packet sellers hustling their wares. They work the lanes of traffic with ferocity, angling through the tiny openings between cars, sprinting to the back of tap-taps (small four-wheel drive trucks that serve as taxis) and pursuing large school buses full of people traveling cross-country, forever racing against the rising temperature of their goods.

The packet sellers are almost exclusively young men and boys working in what has recently become a huge business in Haiti: selling approximately seven ounces of water in a plastic bag. The sellers buy the packets by the bag, usually 60 packets per bag, either directly from big companies or, more often, from a middleman who has purchased a large number of bags and keeps them cold. The packets sell on the street for 1 gourde, about 3 cents. On average, a hard-working packet seller can make almost $2 a day.

The traditional way of getting a glass of water in the streets is from the water sellers, not to be confused with the packet sellers. The water sellers are usually women carrying buckets on their heads and dishing water out in tall stainless steel glasses. They use a lime to clean the rims. These days they are mostly restricted to the market place and lone stretches of road where only foot traffic stops. The packets dominate the rest of business.

About 10 years ago, a few well-established water companies expanded the water market with packets. Because the companies had reliable reputations, the product was considered safe. Now, new water-bagging companies are springing up. In just half an hour one day, I collected eight different brands. Each company labels their bags, indicating they use the expensive but reliable method of reverse osmosis to clean the water. But there is no regulatory system or government oversight, and therefore no way of knowing if the water is safe to drink.

"We don't have precise studies on those companies, but money is being made without control for a product that is not necessarily of good quality," said economist and water expert Gerald Jean-Baptiste.

I tried to get information about the profitability of the water packets and the quality of the water from two different companies. Neither Eau National nor Sejourne, in the packet business for 18 months and eight years respectively, would give me any information. Although I tried numerous times to make an appointment with the president of Eau National, I was denied both an interview and a tour of the facilities. At Sejourne, owner Jacques. Etheart told me the water packet business was not about making money. "Water packets is a way to provide a service to the community, where people can get good-quality water," Etheart said. However, again, I was denied a tour. Only Culligan Water, one of Haiti's biggest and oldest water companies, would give me specifics. At the time of my visit to the plant Culligan's packet system was not operating, but vice president John Debrosse told me that they had been producing 2,000 bags a day, which has a street value of about $21,000 a week. According to Debrosse Culligan's use of a more durable and expensive plastic makes them less competitive. "Their plastic is cheaper that's why they can sell cheaper," said Debrosse.

A side effect of this business is that the thousands upon thousands of packets that are produced have caused an environmental problem, clogging the streets with nonbiodegradable garbage and asphyxiating sea life when the bags are swept into the ocean. Yet when it comes to survival, environmental concerns are lost on the sellers. "I get money for my feeding, water and clothing," Jaculyn Bonaville, a 14-year-old seller, told me. "If I find something better, then I will do that, but this is a good business."

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