Solving Cities

In a city without sewers, glimmers of hope

Posting in Cities

In Port-au-Prince, sanitation is not only poor, its deadly. But there are glimmers of hope for innovation.

Imagine a city with as many people living in it as Chicago: 2.5 million. Only it has more than twice the population density and operates without a sewer system. Welcome to Port-au-Prince, one of the world's largest cities without a sewer system.

The lack of a sewer system in Haiti's capital city isn't just a cosmetic issue, it's also causing a major public health crisis. Since 2010, Haiti has seen one the world's largest cholera epidemics in decades, with over half a million cases reported and over 7,000 deaths. And because of poor sanitation it will be a difficult disease to eliminate.

But while the city may never have a system of underground sewers like the United States is used to, there are some glimmers of hope for improved sanitation in the city. NPR's Richard Knox on All Things Considered reports on two examples of improved sewage.

The first comes from a school in Port-au-Prince that is using an actual toilet. It's not connected to pipes but it does do something pretty amazing. It's a biodigester. The waste from the toilet is recycled and is turned into methane gas. The school will use the gas for cooking, Knox reports. On a large scale it could be a cheaper, quicker solution.

On the city level, Port-au-Prince recently built its very first sewage treatment plant, outside the city.

Amazingly, this plant and another one 12 miles away that's about to open will handle the city's entire output. The sludge will be used for agricultural compost, and the detoxified effluent will irrigate a grove of trees to be planted around the treatment ponds. "Come back in two years, and this will look like a park," Etienne says.

Soon there will be treatment plants like this one in seven other Haitian cities. "We already have the funds," he says. The money comes from a post-earthquake donation by the Spanish government.

Port-au-Prince might be the epitome of the good and bad that comes with cities. On the one hand, lots of people in a small space can produce major health concerns. But at the same time, it's in cities where innovation can happen at a much larger and faster scale, helping more people, if the resources are available.

Port-au-Prince: A City of Millions, With No sewer System [NPR]

Photo: Flickr/United Nations Photos

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Tyler Falk

Contributing Editor

Tyler Falk freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was with Smart Growth America and Grist. He holds a degree from Goshen College. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure