DON GONYEA, HOST:
Port-au-Prince, Haiti is a city of more than 3 million people with no sewer system. International donors have spent millions of dollars on infrastructure meant to help the situation. But a multi-year plan to build sewage treatment plants all over the country has stalled. And residents say things are getting worse. Rebecca Hersher reports.
REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Port-au-Prince's low cinderblock housing projects are the frontline of the sewage problem in the city. Project Drouillard or Project D is hopping on a sunny Friday afternoon. Men are playing dominoes. Kids are shooting marbles in the narrow dirt alleyways.
HERSHER: The sound of dance practice spills out onto the street.
(SOUNDBITE OF AMBIENT NOISE)
HERSHER: The zinc-roofed buildings here are tightly packed along a canal where people throw trash and plastic bags full of human waste. There's an outhouse for every 10 to 20 homes. Around the corner is about a foot of hardened mud inside a row of abandoned houses.
GABRIEL MONTREUIL: (Through interpreter) See the dirt, mud, trash? It's because we had two floods in April - one on Good Friday and one on Easter. No house was spared.
HERSHER: Gabriel Montreuil (ph) has lived here his whole life. He says every time it rains, raw sewage floods his home. It's scary. Among other dangers, there's a cholera epidemic in Haiti. And the floods are getting worse.
MONTREUIL: (Through interpreter) The first time, it was 1-foot high. When it came back, it was 2 feet. And this time, it was 3 feet. As the adult, I needed to save the lives of my children.
HERSHER: The family slept on the street for a night and then came back to clean up. Montrieul blames the floods on sewage and trash clogging canals that run through Project D. You can smell them. One of Gabriel's neighbors, who goes by Calypso, takes me over to see the nearest canal.
CALYPSO: (Through interpreter) Right here, the flood killed seven people in April.
HERSHER: Is there human waste in here?
CALYPSO: Everything. Everything.
HERSHER: Everything goes in the canal. The raw sewage should be trucked out to a sewage treatment plant. But there's no government-run sewage disposal operation. And most of the formal waste removal is done by private companies. Most people can't afford it. And international aid money isn't available to help with that. As a result, the government estimates less than 10 percent of Port-au-Prince's waste ever makes it to the treatment facility, which is called Goat Mountain. It's pretty simple - just three basins that slowly use the sun and wind to disinfect raw sewage over the course of months. But the manager, Ricky Constant, says it's not designed to handle such small volumes of waste.
RICKY CONSTANT: (Through interpreter) So now the basins are not working properly the way they are supposed to be working.
HERSHER: When the level gets too low, the water just sits there instead of flowing from one basin to the next. And there are other design flaws like a mountain of trash that's accumulated next to where companies dump raw sewage.
CONSTANT: (Through interpreter) One of our issues is we shouldn't have that much trash here.
HERSHER: Trash and sewage often travel together in Haiti. Remember, most people aren't using toilets. They're using pit latrines and throwing other stuff in there, too. But the treatment plant is only designed to handle human waste.
CONSTANT: (Through interpreter) This is a misunderstanding, a bad approach of the sanitation issue in Haiti.
HERSHER: Why do you think that happened?
CONSTANT: (Through interpreter) Haitian engineers made the conception of this site. But it's a copycat from foreign countries. This is the first experience of Haitians dealing with that.
HERSHER: This kind of international influence is a big reason for the stalled sanitation infrastructure plan in Haiti. Since the 2010 earthquake here, the expertise and money for sewage plants have come from outside the country. Donors with good intentions nonetheless fund projects that are not always a good fit for what Port-au-Prince needs. Up the road, a second identical sewage treatment plant is overgrown with weeds.
I wonder when the last time this gate was open. Oh, it's getting stuck in the trees.
The Spanish government paid $2.1 million to build this plant, starting in 2010. It's been closed since 2013 because of engineering problems.
The pools are full of really green water. And the birds love it.
Even though it's not working, funding the plant appears to be a point of pride for the Spanish government. Queen Sofia even visited it when it was under construction. And even with the demand for sewage treatment facilities falling, Spain is planning to spend another $617,000 to fix this facility. Construction begins in the fall. Back in Project D, Gabriel Montreuil feels abandoned.
MONTREUIL: (Through interpreter) In other countries, they take care of the population. Here, we rely on God. We cannot rely on the government.
HERSHER: He doesn't see the sewage treatment plants or the international money. He just sees a Haitian government that doesn't seem to listen to people like him. For NPR News, I'm Rebecca Hersher in Port-au-Prince
GONYEA: Their story was supported by a grant from Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.