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Rainwater Cisterns for Family Organic Gardens in Haiti

Empowering students to bring organic gardening practices from school to home by building their own cisterns with plastic bottle bricks.

Photo of Chris W. Low

Written by

At the Matènwa Community Learning Center (MCLC) on the island of La Gonave, Haiti, integrated programs for the development of organic gardens, making functional art from trash, reforestation, Creole literacy and non-violent education are slowly but confidently building peace and prosperity with a consciousness raising about ones environment. After a successful 20 years of creating an integrated community model, and spreading organic gardening techniques to other schools for the past 7 years, Matènwa teacher trainers have arrived at this conclusion: the next most vital initiative necessary to support MCLC's efforts to spread positive change at the intersection of peace, prosperity and the planet, would be to increase access to water for hundreds of families. In order to spread organic vegetable gardening, now taught at 45 schools on the island, there needs to be a concerted effort to not only collect water off school rooftops but also off students' home rooftops. Giving students’ families an opportunity to build affordable home water collection systems is crucial to increasing their garden's production, contributing to their food security. Climate Change has made rainy seasons unpredictable on this island.  Water access is presently at 2.5 gallons per person per day. Children carry buckets of water on their heads, walking for miles every single day. Their nutrition is limited, not everyone can afford even one balanced meal a day.   

Explain your idea

The proposal Friends of Matènwa puts forth is to provide its network of schools with money and training to build water cisterns out of plastic bottle bricks for the most motived students in the garden. After hurricane Matthew, local bricklayers experimented by building homes with discarded plastic drinking bottles. This resulted in cleaning up the environment, lowering material costs and having the community work together to gather bottles and fill them with dirt. This same technique can be used to build cistern walls. These cisterns will collect rainwater off the students' homes. This will make watering a garden possible. Even if there are times when the cisterns run dry, once their plants have started to grow, we believe that the students will be motivated enough to go to the nearest spring to fetch water and keep their plants alive. We believe this because when the schools' cisterns run out of water each child comes to school with a gallon of water in order to keep their school gardens alive. Family gardens have succeeded in the past. Matènwa gave training and smaller water drum collection systems to 6 families in 10 of their network schools. After this pilot, Matènwa received funding to train 25 more schools and give 6 families from each of these schools plastic chateau collection systems. As rain fall decreases and need increases, we feel that these plastic bottle cisterns will last longer, hold more water and be more affordable. Much more than 6 families per school need water! With no public trash collection system, nor a recycling center on the whole island of La Gonave, which is home to approximately 120,000 people, the environment is becoming increasingly littered with plastic bottles and other plastic trash. Trying to get rid of this non-biodegradable trash, people resort to burning it, unwittingly exposing their families and neighbors to toxic fumes. Repurposing the bottles in this way gets individuals to collect plastic bottles and other tossed trash with which they fill the bottles. People clean up their environment, and reduce their cost of housing, and protect their families from common natural disasters, since these walls are earthquake and hurricane resistant. Increasing the production of fresh vegetables also reduces a huge burden off market women who presently have the arduous task of traveling up and down mountains and across the sea, by donkey and overcrowded wooden sailboats, to bring these products from Port Au Prince all the way to their local markets. An elder in the community once shared a very peaceful joyful image of how life was before Climate Change and deforestation on La Gonave. She said, " When I was a little girl there was so much food that you couldn't sell your fruit at the market, no one would buy it because there were so many trees. There was fruit everywhere. And people would constantly be sharing food. You would see plates being sent here and there from house to house."

Who Benefits?

Students and their families from up to 45 different schools across La Gonave will benefit from this idea. Families already have access to tool banks and seed through the Matènwa school network. Their biggest obstacle is lack of water at home. Tomatoes, onions, eggplant, cabbage, were all transported from mainland Haiti before Matènwa trainers started teaching organic gardening. For the past few years students who live close to water springs have been able to grow vegetables at home for their own consumption and to sell in the open market. Their families have profited. But the majority of students live a 15 to 90 minutes walk from their water source. Thousands of children and adults can benefit from this simple solution of gutters and plastic brick cisterns. How many families will benefit depends on the dollar amount awarded to this project. Each cistern will cost about 700 dollars.

How is your idea unique?

Cisterns can be very costly. After Hurricane Matthew our community decided to rebuild homes using plastic bottle bricks. This cut down on the amount of cement needed to build walls since the bottles are filled with dirt or packed with non-biodegradable trash. This also reduced the amount of plastic trash, making the environment healthier. People are happily living in these new homes. They are confident that the plastic bricks are sturdy enough to build cisterns too. Using this material makes cisterns more affordable and makes the project a participatory one where families learn how to build their own cisterns. Many times organizations build one large cistern that collects water off a large church roof and then people pay by the bucket. This makes watering a home garden unaffordable.

Idea Proposal Stage

  • Prototyping: I have done some small tests or experiments with prospective users to continue developing my idea.

Tell us more about you

Friends of Matènwa is based in Cambridge MA. It was created in 2010 to support the Matènwa Community Learning Center's programs. Chris Low, an American educator, and Abner Sauveur, a Haitian teacher, co-founded the Matènwa Community Learning Center (MCLC) in 1996. The Center is located on the impoverished rural island of La Gonave, which is home to about 120,000 people. Its unique educational program is based on core principles that offer a fundamentally different approach to learning: 1. Elementary grade classroom instruction is delivered in Creole. Thus, students learn to think, read, and write in their native tongue. French is taught as a second language. 2. Students learn in an environment that prohibits corporal punishment and promotes mutual respect and dialogue between school administrators, teachers, parents, and students, with an emphasis on respect and equal opportunities for women and girls. 3. Elementary grade students learn to read by writing and illustrating Mother Tongue Books in Creole to be read by their classmates. These books are age-appropriate and culturally relevant. In this way, children solidify their reading skills, and develop their creativity through storytelling and art. 4. Teachers follow a curriculum that includes art, music, and physical education as well as organic gardening that promotes concrete skills as well as food security. Gardening includes a tree nursery and composting. 5. Teachers receive training to insure that excellence in educational content, communications, support and positive reinforcement is sustained in each classroom. 6. Parents and community members are encouraged to replicate the practices of mutual respect and group-level problem solving that is practiced in the classrooms. Over the last 20 years, MCLC’s programs have evolved to include a best-practices elementary school, a high school, a meal program, a school clinic, an arts based summer camp, and an Institute of Learning. In addition, the Center delivers programs designed to help families improve their food supply, their health, housing, social stability and equality. MCLC wants to make literacy and organic vegetable gardening available to all of Haiti’s people. By 2024, we envision a 200-school network of Institute-trained educators across La Gonave. All will have demonstration gardens and water collection systems. Parent committees will run community tool and seed banks, allowing families to expand on what their children have learned; reducing hunger, increasing prosperity. MCLC supports the United Nations “Rights of the Child”; rights to education, nutrition, protection, and social services.

Expertise in sector

  • 7+ years

Organization Filing Status

  • Yes, we are a registered non-profit.


Join the conversation:

Photo of David Krevitt

This is awesome Chris, great concept.

Photo of Chris W. Low

Thank you David.

Photo of Chris W. Low

What do you like about this concept?

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