America’s water warrior in Haiti

Armed with wire, pipe and corrugated iron, one Michigander changes lives

Judith Ritter By Judith Ritter

Hundreds of foreign aid workers and church groups come through Haiti’s Toussaint Louverture International Airport near Port-au-Prince, but the one that stands out to the Haitians is a big, ruddy-faced, gray-haired Michigan man laden with bags, boxes and backpacks.

As Bob Keesee wades through the crowd, he’s greeted by luggage handlers, hucksters and well-dressed Haitians alike. He hollers at them in Creole, contributing to the din of the airport. Yes, Keesee is back in Haiti, clean water on his mind.

Low tech hero

For nearly 20 years, Keesee has been installing his low-tech rain-harvesting device he calls a Raincatcher on shacks in Haiti’s highest mountains, where the country’s poorest people live. On an island that’s been called “The Republic of NGOs” — a reference to the country’s over-dependence on foreign aid — Keesee has a project that works.

“It’s as simple as it gets,” he says. “Water is the basic necessity of life. It rains here 60 inches a year. Catch it. It’s that simple. I think we overthink problems and try to offer solutions that are way too complex for this culture. All we’re doing is putting up a gutter and catching water that falls out of the sky.”

Keesee at work in Sequin, the Haitian village he’s been visiting for two decades. (Judith Ritter)

Working with Haitian locals and foreign volunteers, by his own count Keesee has equipped close to 2,000 shacks with a McGyver-style contraption he invented in the late 1990s using pipes, filters, zip ties, hoses and barrels. He estimated that he now supplies families with 5,600 gallons of water per year per family.

Here’s a video of an installation:

Lack of potable water is an old problem for Haiti, but it’s worsened since the 2010 earthquake. According to Partners in Health, a Boston-based NGO that advocates on health issues in the developing world, more than 70 percent of Haitians drink contaminated water that often causes diarrheal diseases, including cholera.

The United Nations’ Special Envoy to Haiti recently reported that “16 percent of child-under-five deaths in Haiti were directly related to waterborne diseases before the earthquake. This number is now higher as a result of the earthquake and cholera outbreak.”

Roro Eustache, director of Haitian Christian Outreach, runs a clinic in the Seguin area. He speaks emotionally about Keesee’s project serving a vital need.

“The quality of water provided by Raincatchers has brought a huge improvement on the health condition of the people in Seguin,” says Eustache. “We have seen less and less people coming to our clinic with typhoid or other water related diseases.”

An extended family

Six thousand feet up in the rocky Seguin Plateau, south of Port-au-Prince, soil slides down the slopes of deforested mountains. There are no roads, no latrines, no electricity and very little money. Still, Keesee thinks of the area’s impoverished residents as his extended family. But “family” doesn’t begin to describe this former insurance executive’s relationship with Haiti’s disenfranchised.

He worries about disease in the region, so he brings a healthcare practitioner (sometimes a doctor, sometimes a nurse and a few times an EMT) to treat his crew and the locals. He worries about malnutrition (seen in the reddish tint to children’s hair) and brings food for the families in greatest need.

Mostly, he worries about the young Haitians who work with him. “I’ve known some of these boys since they were three, and I worry about their futures. What will they do? There are no jobs. What’s the future for this next generation?” he asks, looking up at a hillside dotted with infants’ graves.

Keesee’s familiarity with Haiti has led him to be impatient with the celebrity do-gooders and smartly dressed international aid organizers holed up in hotels and roaming the island in big white SUVs.

“Lots of the local people I know tell me that they think most of the agencies that come screw things up and leave,” he says. He cites a new latrine recently installed in Sequin. “You know what the people were using it for? Drying potatoes!”

Buckets of filthy water

Bob Keesee first came to Haiti with a church group in 1994. Water was the furthest thing from his mind. That changed after a 10-hour trip on unpaved, switchback roads to a remote village in the mountains. The inveterate do-it-yourselfer was appalled to see women hauling buckets of filthy water long distances and men struggling to collect rainwater with scraps of tin and baling wire. He still feels the sadness that fueled his resolve to find a solution.

In rural Haiti, families cram into kai pais, tent-like structures of corn stalks that leak in the rain and collapse in the wind. Luckier families have shacks of rocks and mortar with corrugated tin roofs, often rusted and decayed. Keesee realized he needed to invent a gutter system that would collect, contain and filter rainwater. It had to withstand hurricanes, deter thieves and repair easily. It was a tall order.

Back home in Howell, Michigan he built a Haitian-style roof in his backyard and experimented with PVC pipe, barrels and brackets. But he could only test his jury-rigged invention if it rained. Neighbors, he says, were both fascinated and dismayed to see him standing in downpours, staring at the shack roof. “My neighbor looked over the fence, and I could tell he thought I was crazy,” Keesee said.

 

He spent four years tinkering in his backyard and testing the device on many return trips to Haiti. Finally, he felt his brainchild worked the way he wanted it to.

Cash, not aid

Keesee now returns to Haiti every four to six weeks, bringing more than clean water to remote communities. He also pumps cash into the economy, unlike most aid organizations.

An analysis by the Center on Economic and Policy Research of the United States Federal Procurement Database System states just 2.4 percent of the $205 million appropriated for recent U.S. aid contracts went to Haitian businesses.

Keesee, however, purchases most of his material locally. And you won’t find him in a shiny SUV. He hires tap taps, Haitians’ transportation of choice. “What I do isn’t aid. It’s an income-generating project,” he says.

Keesee’s old-fashioned entrepreneurial spirit helps him fund the project. Early on, he tried for grants but got nowhere. The applications were complex and he has little time or patience for paperwork, so he opted for a different model. The material for each rain catcher costs about $300. With most Haitians living on less than $2 a day, few if any families can afford one. So Keesee recruits young people back home to help. They raise money for the materials and their trips.

Bringing volunteers has a secondary benefit, too. “If every American had a personal connection to a Haitian village, we might be closer to solving some of Haiti’s problems,” he says. Although Keesee sometimes loses money on his trips, his helpers usually put up 45 water systems and end up with around $1,000 left over.

In the Seguin region, people have lots of stories about Keesee. Someone tells of his help building a new soccer field, another how he acquired new tarps to cover cornstalk huts, others of medical trips to Jacmel, a provincial capital in Haiti’s southern peninsula. Above all — from children to the very elderly — there are stories of how Keesee’s rain catcher brought them water and changed their lives.

Felix Ville, one of the elders of Seguin, says the raincatcher changed her life. (Judith Ritter)

 

In Haiti, plenty of NGOs come and go. Kessee does, too. But, as Haitians like Ville point out, “Bob always comes back.”