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Water Poor Haiti Faces Floods

After months of political turmoil, Haitians now face one more calamity. The Haiti Support Group today reports that hundreds of Haitians have died over the last few days in floods and landslides as torrential rains sweep the country.

This news comes from a country where water shortage is a permanent way of life. The UK-based Center for Ecology and Hydrology places Haiti first on its list of the world’s « Water Poor Countries. » The list is based on a comparative statistical index of the population’s access to clean water. Water is judged to be more scarce in Haiti than in Niger, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Malawi, the countries that follow Haiti on the list.

How is it that people can be dying in floods in the world’s water poorest country? In most years, Haiti receives more rainfall than south Florida. Because of the advanced state of deforestation in Haiti, the land has little capacity to absorb the rain, which rushes to the sea carrying precious topsoil with it. Scientists estimate that Haiti loses the equivalent of 30,000 acres of topsoil each year via erosion.

In their report on the floods, the Haiti Support Group rightly points to the need for reforestation and agrarian reform. In Haiti today, the most effective reforestation projects are small-scale efforts being carried out by peasant groups around the country. Unfortunately, these efforts are usually starved for resources. The Papaye Peasant Movement, for example, provides support to local communities in the creation of community nurseries to serve local reforestation efforts. A cooperative can not receive credit through MPP programs unless it is willing to create a nursery and make a reforestation plan for its land. The Agrosilvaculture Project being carried out by the MPP in the countryside around its Papaye training center is promoting a combination of soil conservation and reforestation as the foundation of creating a more sustainable agriculture in the region.

The MPP is well aware that such local efforts can not, by themselves, solve Haiti’s terrible ecological problems. At a minimum, the country’s government must make sustainable agriculture a priority and invest resources in the national replication of experiences like that taking place in Papaye. In addition, there are other highly appropriate technologies that, for a relatively small investment, could ensure that more of the rain that falls on Haiti recharges fresh water supplies rather instead of racing to the sea. For now, the farmers of Papaye are staying busy creating the models that they hope will improve their lives and those of other Haitians. What choice do they have?

On December 7, 2003, The South Florida Sun-Sentinel published a special section, complete with color photographs highlighting Haiti’s environmental crisis. We recommend it for those interested in more information on this issue.