An earthbag demo home in Gainesville, under construction. Photo courtesy of Barrels of Hope.

On Jan. 12, 2010, a devastating earthquake hit Haiti, highlighting the population’s vulnerability after years of political corruption and ineffective or nonexistent building codes and water treatment facilities. 1.5 million people were left homeless. Thousands are still living in “tent cities,” where 30 to 40 percent have no access to toilets or drinkable water.

In Oct. 2010, overcrowding and a lack of sanitation led to an irrepressible outbreak of cholera in the camps. The Pan-American Health Organization estimates the outbreak could kill up to 10,000 people and infect almost 200,000 in the upcoming year. To date, over 171,000 people have been infected and over 3,600 have lost their lives.

Barrels of Hope (BOH), a local non-profit, is directly addressing housing and sanitation issues by training workers in Haiti and organizing volunteers in Gainesville to construct earthbag houses for victims of the earthquake.

Ryan Scott, Director of Operations for BOH, spent a month of his summer clearing rubble in Haiti. He quit his full-time engineering job so he could join the reconstruction efforts. “I feel that my time is better spent delivering solutions to those in need,” he said.

Earthbag houses cost-effective, easy to build, energy efficient and sustainable; an entire house can be built by a small group of people within a week. The foundation and walls are made from bags filled with soil, which are stacked and compacted, one on top of another. Water is not required in the mixture, thus conserving the island’s scarce resource.

Last December, Scott led the construction of a demo earthbag house in Gainesville in order to train team leaders. A typical 10-person home consists of two 10-by-10-foot rooms, a living room area and a bedroom. Additional rooms can be added cheaply. So far, the group has built two earthbag homes in Haiti. They carried unfilled earthbags in their luggage and purchased the remaining supplies upon arrival.

BOH is also working to address the issue of water access. The group plans to send its first shipment of rain barrels, filled with enough supplies to build an earthbag home, in the next few months. Since many homes in Haiti do not have indoor plumbing, it’s a common practice to get water from wells and streams. Even though the rain barrels lack filtration units, the water they collect will still be cleaner than the island’s surface waters and can be used for drinking, as well as in the home and garden.

Providing Haiti’s people with a new skill empowers and prepares them to address housing issues in the future. BOH is working with the Reinforced Earth Bag (REB) Project group of UF’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders to test the strength of their construction techniques.

“We are addressing the question, ‘Will it stand up?’” said Brandon Ross, founder of the REB group.

Prior to the REB group, researchers have tested other earthbag structures, like Superadobe, which are able to withstand earthquakes with a factor of up to 8.0 in the Richter scale.

The REB group’s results are encouraging. They have already surpassed some of the Florida Building Codes in a recent test of a small-scale earthbag wall. The “Sun House,” home of resident Father Marc Boisvert, exemplifies the durability of earthbags. After the 2010 earthquake, it was one of the few structures left standing.

Following the earthquake, attention was focused on reconstruction efforts, but the recent cholera epidemic has refocused attention on Haiti’s continued lack of water treatment. In 1997, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) declared that only 46 percent of Haitians had access to potable (drinkable) water and that Haiti’s water systems are vulnerable. About $54 million in loans were then approved by IDB for potable water and sanitation projects.

According to numerous reports from Partners in Health and the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at NYU, continued political manipulation by the U.S. has resulted in many of the promised loans being only partially dispersed or withheld altogether. Since then, $1.15 billion in aid relief promised in March 2001 has been tied up in Congress by stipulations for Haiti to first prove its commitment to fighting corruption.

While politics are debated, thousands of people are left in tent cities, vulnerable to cholera. Many don’t have the luxury of turning on the tap and accessing clean water. There is no viable sanitation system to treat water contamination.

Clean water is a right. The politicking of governments should not supersede access to clean and healthy water or interfere with international loans. While the people in charge of dispersing financial aid struggle through red tape, you can help make a difference now.

If you would like to put words into action, there will be a spring break building trip to Haiti. You can find out more about the trip and other ways to help by visiting Barrels of Hope or From Gainesville with Love.