Haiti’s hurricane trail of destruction

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In an excellent article on Haiti’s environmental dilemma, Suzanne Goldenberg of London’s Guardian looks at the coming hurricane season and what it can bring in terms of death and destruction to the island. “A constellation of factors – crushing poverty and environmental degradation, political instability and bad governance, ill-conceived international aid efforts and sheer geographical bad luck – have crippled Haiti’s ability to withstand and recover from tropical storms,” she writes, citing one of those she interviewed as calling Haiti “a mosaic of vulnerabilities.”

The article is a must read for anyone interested in Haiti’s environmental situation. It contains a number of links to informative videos. Here’s an excerpt:

It took until last year for the country’s elite to begin to see a connection between the devastation of the landscape, and natural disaster. “I have to admit that for the majority of the business society, managing water, managing soil, climate change, these are all things that they talk about on CNN and BBC, or that you hear Al Gore going on about,” said Gregory Brandt, a prominent businessman. “It’s not for us. I’d say the majority was aware but not concerned.”

The international community was also slow to grasp the connection, said Anita Swarup, who has worked as a consultant on climate change for Oxfam, Unicef and other organisations. “As far as I can see, little or nothing has been done in terms of dealing with climate change,” she said. “The international community is not sufficiently focused on the impacts of climate change on a poor country like Haiti and considerably more needs to be done.”

Now that reality is inescapable because of the increasing severity and frequency of storms. The Haitian government and the international community are now fully engaged, but those on the front line of efforts to repair the environmental degradation that has left Haiti so exposed to climate change now admit they feel overwhelmed.

In the last few years Oxfam and other international organisations have been working with farmers to build up the hillsides to prevent the massive rush of water towards the sea. Farmers are being encouraged to plant avocado and mango trees, that could help the soil cling to the slopes, and that could bring income over time. They are also being asked to try to shore up ravines with hedges or even sandbags.

But it often feels like too little too late, said Alexandre Pierre Claudel, an agronomist working with Oxfam in Petite Riviere des Nippes. “It’s like we have to keep starting over and over. Nothing lasts for more than a year, and then I am always afraid a hurricane will come,” he said. “The farmers are not ready at all. They are relying on God and praying that nothing will happen.”

A year on from 2008’s hurricane quartet, Haitian government officials have launched an intense push to avoid the worst of the coming season of storms. Town and village councils in the southern Nippes region have drawn up evacuation plans and alarm systems. But most of the town defence teams do not even have radios, let alone cars, to move people to higher ground.

And if they did, the main road to Port-au-Prince remains completely submerged by an inland lake that burst its banks in last year’s flooding. Fisherman now row travellers across the break.

Even in Gonaives – the focus of international relief for Haiti, with visits from Clinton and celebrities including Wyclef Jean – a third of the town remains in ruins. Dozens of people are still living in plastic tents on a scrap of waste-ground on the edge of town. Gary Dupiton, the town engineer, thinks it will take five years to restore the town completely, provided it does not flood again.

Dupiton has spent the last few months overseeing an ambitious project to widen the La Quinte river, the biggest of several that empty at the town, so that it does not burst its banks once again. In Dupiton’s best-case scenario a quarter of the city, Haiti’s third largest, will be flooded in the event of a heavy tropical storm.

And in the worst-case scenario? Duputin does not want to dwell on that prospect. He holds up his hands with fingers crossed. “We are going to have to wait and see,” he said. “Everyone is crossing their fingers and hoping there will be no hurricanes this year.”

To access the article go to http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/aug/17/haiti-hurricane-season

Photo: Patrick Farrell for the Miami Herald.

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