Haiti: An island nation whose environmental troubles only begin with water – Mongabay.com

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I’m messaging P., a Haitian friend and colleague, seeking an assist with this article. It’s about to publish, and I’ve asked him to help me get an interview with the country’s foremost hydrologist. I’m not comfortable writing a story about Haiti with no Haitian interviewees, I tell him, but so far no one has responded.
“He said no,” texts P. “His house is in an area controlled by gangs.”
Haiti has been gripped by paroxysms of unrest since 2018, the time of my last visit. So I’m not surprised when P. describes the current situation: no electricity, roadblocks on every intersection, banks and businesses closed, a man shot just outside his door. I’m not even surprised that someone in the heart of it all might not want to talk to a foreign journalist, even about something as apparently innocuous as hydrology.
But one detail P. shares freezes my blood. Since yesterday, he tells me, his young family has been totally without water, as have residents of several areas of Haiti’s metropolitan region. That and soaring gas prices led to the current raging civil unrest. P. is waiting for things to quiet down in the street outside, then he is going out to find some, somewhere. Anywhere.
Water isn’t always a problem in Haiti, at least not everywhere.
Take the farming town of Verrettes, for example, hugging the bank of a small tributary of the Artibonite River, the country’s largest river. When I visited one sunny afternoon, teenagers splashed about on the banks. Behind them, flooded rice paddies stretched to low mountains in the distance and workers picked their way along muddy berms, machetes in hand. “I like this work,” one man, Mèsidor, told me as he stood ankle deep in water, digging in the mud with his hands. “At least I can feed my family.”
But just hours away, other parts of the island nation were plunged in drought, one of the worst in decades. Corn production has declined every year for the last seven years, and is now 45% lower than its 2013 high. Today, an estimated 4.5 million Haitians, almost half the population, face acute food insecurity, according to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), an initiative led by the United Nations FAO and other organizations.
Rain, when it does fall, does so mostly in dangerous torrents. In 2016, Hurricane Matthew killed at least 500 people on Haiti and caused $2.2 billion in damage, a quarter of the country’s GDP. Fortunately, last week’s Hurricane Fiona missed Haiti.
One of Hurricane Matthew’s worst hit areas, the Department of Grande Anse on the tip of the nation’s southern peninsula, is now also one of the areas most affected by drought. Elsewhere, the saline Lake Azuéi, near the mid-island Haiti-Dominican Republic border, confounds scientists with abrupt and unexplained rises in water level, so pronounced they’ve forced residents to relocate.
“There’s not a shortage of water, it’s just not always exactly where it needs to be.” explains James Adamson, a geologist with Northwater, a consulting firm that works for USAID as well as local Haitian government.
Of course, that’s something you could also say about the entire planet these days, with some regions facing water shortages, while others are literally under water. We have, according to the Planetary Boundaries framework, not only destabilized the planet’s climate system, we’ve also tampered with the global water cycle.
The Planetary Boundaries framework, proposed by the Stockholm Resiliency Centre in 2009, posits theoretical limits to nine key environmental variables: freshwater, biodiversity, decay of the ozone layer, air pollution, high phosphorus and nitrogen levels, ocean acidity, land use as expressed by forest cover, climate change, and contamination by human-made chemicals (called novel entities). Staying within the limits of these boundaries is essential for maintaining a habitable Earth. Cross them, and the various systems that support life could collapse.
The boundaries are interconnected, none more so than freshwater. Called the “bloodstream of the biosphere” by celebrated hydrologist Malin Falkenmark, water is crucial to the functioning of virtually every other planetary system, helping regulate climate, transporting nutrients and energy, storing carbon, helping make new soil, and sustaining living cells.
But it’s a delicate dance: Changing the water cycle affects those other Earth systems. And changing those systems, in turn, can alter the water cycle.
The Planetary Boundary framework was originally created to describe the world as a whole, to highlight, for example, the long chain of climate connections between a drought in California and flooding in Pakistan. But some scientists think the framework can be applied to smaller areas — a region, a biome, habitat, or even an island country like Haiti.
“You can think of these small systems as Earths by themselves,” explains Fernando Jaramillo, a physical geographer at Stockholm University. “These are also complex systems. So we’re talking about a water system, the biochemical system, the climatological system, the ecological system, and so forth,” all interacting on a local level.
“And just like the earth as a whole,” he says, “alter any one of them too much and the whole system just collapses.”
To date, no one has studied Haiti in the light of the Planetary Boundary framework (Jaramillo, for example, specializes in the wetlands of Colombia). But this fragile country seems a perfect candidate for such an examination.
It is small, but home to multiple ecosystems, from mountain peaks to coastal wetlands, and ranks among the world’s designated biodiversity hotspots. Many birds, lizards and fish are endemic. But Haiti also faces dire threats from humanity’s transgression of most, if not all, the planetary boundaries.
But unlike threats at a global scale, those in this island nation occur in close proximity and are tightly coupled; the deforested mountain slopes that cause destructive sedimentation in the seaside mangrove forests are often in sight of each other.  This can make the observation of complex interactions easier and more immediate.
Finally, Haiti’s environmental policies isolate it from the Dominican Republic, its lone neighbor on the island of Hispaniola, allowing for political comparison and contrast. You can see this in satellite images of the island. In places, the border is clearly revealed in the contrasting swathes of brown on the Haitian side, and green on the Dominican.
Finally, the question of collapse: The Planetary Boundaries framework warns that ecosystem collapse is the ultimate price paid for crossing one or more thresholds. It sometimes seems that the word might have been invented for Haiti. As early as the 1970s, the UN was warning Haiti was on the verge of environmental disaster. The country was highlighted in geographer Jared Diamond’s 2005 book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. The most recent wave of wrenching social unrest, comes on the heels of extreme drought and hunger, which led to a 2021 presidential assassination, and gang warfare that has all but paralyzed the country.
A look at Haiti through the lens of all nine boundaries is beyond the scope of this article, but to get a taste for the interlocking complexities of a socioenvironmental collapse in progress, we focus on just one: freshwater. And we do so as a case study and cautionary tale for the world: Unchecked, planetary boundary transgressions threaten to make even today’s most prosperous nation states into unlivable failed states.
In terms of sheer water volume, Haiti is better off than some Caribbean neighbors. It boasts the largest river in the Caribbean — the Artibonite, which it shares with the Dominican Republic —and one of the largest freshwater lakes, Lake Miragoâne. Forty billion cubic meters of rain falls on the country annually.
But only about 5% of that water recharges aquifers. That’s partly because the recent whiplash weather regime parches soil, then subjects it to torrential downpours. And it’s getting worse, just as climate change models have predicted. Temperatures have increased over the last 100 years, and precipitation has become increasingly erratic, swingingly wildly from drought to deluge.
Fast falling rain doesn’t stick around, but surges down steep hills to the sea. And it has a clear run because most of the nation’s slopes have no trees on them. Although deforestation rates are a hotly debated topic in Haiti, some studies estimate that only 4% of original tree cover remains.
There’s a planetary boundary-related cause to all that deforestation: In this energy starved nation, the vast majority of people depend on charcoal from local trees to cook. As a result, most slopes, including those that hem the valley around Verrettes, are nothing but low scrub and rock — their lush forests the victim of centuries of land-use change — itself a planetary boundary.
“If the water falls on denuded hill slopes, it just runs off in a rush,” says Michael Piasecki, an engineering professor at the City College of New York. He has worked in Haiti since 2010, and owns a home and scientific laboratory in Leogane, about 30 kilometers west of the capital, Port-au-Prince. “There is not enough staying potential for the water to be captured by roots or plants… so that it has enough time to actually trickle down. It just races downhill very fast.”
And when it does, it takes soil with it. Haiti loses 5,560 tons of soil per square kilometer every year, the worst erosion rate of any country on Earth. That has implications for agriculture on the hill slopes, of course, but also for the water cycle farther downstream. The hard rain “carries a lot of sediments into the lower reaches of the river,” says Piasecki. “You clog the conveyance system. Then you have the problem that even modest rainfall events will then cause flooding because the water has nowhere to go.” Not to mention the effect this has on global climate change: soils are vital for sequestering carbon, but you can’t store anything in what you don’t have.
Sedimentation even feeds back into its own cause — deforestation. Silting has crippled Haiti’s largest hydroelectric dam and reservoir, Lake Péligre on the Artibonite River near the Dominican border. Built with much fanfare and U.S. aid in the late 1950s, the Péligre dam was supposed to ease Haiti’s chronic energy shortage. Turbidity, however, has reduced the dam’s electric output (never as high as promised) by half, increasing Haitian’s dependence on tree-based charcoal.
Farther downriver, sediments pile up, shifting channels and blocking water from reaching wetlands; thus, biodiversity integrity, another planetary boundary, suffers. Many of Haiti’s rivers no longer even reach the sea during the dry season. Without an influx of freshwater, salinity increases, killing mangroves. Where the coasts of Haiti were once rimmed with mangrove, today only isolated stands remain. Mangrove sequesters five times as much carbon as terrestrial forests, so mangrove destruction in Haiti exacerbates global warming. Mangrove loss also robs coastal dwellers of protection from climate change-induced sea level rise, intensified storms and hurricanes.
Inland, Piasecki says his own well level has been falling; neighbors report dry wells. He points to declining recharge in alluvial aquifers in the coastal regions as a cause, which also exposes island dwellers to saltwater intrusion, as seawater seeps in to take the place of missing freshwater. Salinity of the lowland aquifer that supplies most of Port-au-Prince is increasing 3% a year. Less than 30 meters (about 100 feet) above sea level, and pinched between the Bay of Port-au-Prince and saline Lake Azuéi, the aquifer will face accelerating intrusion if sea level continues rising.
And it most certainly will. Modelling suggests climate change will raise seas around Haiti between 0.13 to 0.4 meters (5 to 16 inches) by 2030. Likewise, hurricane intensity in the country is expected to increase between 5% and 10% by 2100, even as droughts become more frequent. Temperatures are already up.
Back in 2018 when I visited, the shaded porticoes and bouganvillea of Delmas, a middle-class suburb of Port-au-Prince, seemed to offer some respite from this apocalyptic vision, at least on the days when it wasn’t consumed in protests and gang violence. Here, residents still receive a trickle of city water two or three times a month; they store it in tanks, and top it up with water truck deliveries from the lowland aquifer. In poorer neighborhoods, lacking tanks or water mains, residents line up to fill five-gallon jugs from arriving tankers. Like the mains, the trucked in water is provided by government, but black market reselling and clandestine water connections are rife, say locals.
Indeed, despite Haiti’s relative water abundance, most Haitians live with  scarcity. Per capita renewable water resources are 1,278m3, which makes the country water stressed according to the Falkenmark index (created by the hydrologist cited above). A minimum of 1,000m3 are considered necessary to sustain human life, which encompasses water for all uses including agriculture and industry. Personal consumption in Haiti, that doesn’t include industrial or agricultural use, works out to about 46 liters per person per day, one tenth of what the average American consumes.
Access is getting worse too, particularly in the cities, despite funding from foreign aid agencies and private companies. In 1990, 62% of Haiti’s population had access to safe drinking water; today that figure is 52%. Part of the problem is institutional weakness, with insufficient reliable data as to how much water is in the ground, or who is using it. Aid agencies fund short-term research, says Piasecki, but equipment falls into disrepair soon after they leave. In Leogane, he says , the state water company has closed wells because receipts from customers don’t cover the cost of pumping.
A five-year USAID-funded program just wrapping up this year, seeks to improve water accounting with a data management system called mWater. The system generates an online database of infrastructure conditions, updated regularly by hundreds of workers across Haiti. USAID claims the project helped DINEPA, the national water agency, increase revenue by 20% last year, giving it greater capacity.
But the data, which is publicly available (including personally identifiable information such as names and phone numbers of all contributors) makes for heartbreaking reading: “The water distribution point has been out of service for around five months because the well is partially dried up,” says one. “I am asking DINEPA to come quickly and rescue their users, who are in great difficulty,” says another.
According to the database, about 40% of wells surveyed are reported out of service. But cities continue growing and putting existing water resources under greater pressure.
It’s expected that Port-au-Prince will have to increase extraction by about 11.6 million cubic meters, an almost 18% increase over current levels to accommodate projected growth in the next few years. Options for finding that water are limited. They include a dam, a mountain tunnel overlooking the city, and a massive pipeline along the coast from Leogane, (the town where Michael Piasecki has been watching his water table fall).
Hydrologist James Adamson has studied the feasibility of some of these proposals with funding from the Interamerican Development Bank. He says the obstacles are not hydrological, but institutional. “I don’t know if Haiti’s ready for another dam and reservoir type project or major infrastructure to manage.” He said. “Right now, they can hardly manage a well field in Haiti. I’d be more worried about the management and the governmental capacity than the technical feasibility.” Which is one of the issues with planetary boundaries — the more they’re compromised, the more frequent are environmental disasters, and the more political structures are stressed to the point of failure.
Getting water is only part of the problem. Keeping it clean is another.
It isn’t uncommon to see farm animals freely roaming city streets, and waste chemicals pour into storm sewers. A water-borne cholera outbreak occurring after a major earthquake impacted 820,000 Haitians in 2010. A leading cause of hospital visits in Port-au-Prince is lead poisoning, which researchers attribute to battery acid from informal service stations. The country has no municipal water treatment plants, and only about a quarter of the population has access to sanitation. A recent survey of more than 9,000 wells and water points in the country found 40% were unsafe for human use. Nitrogen from untreated waste — another planetary boundary transgression — promotes algal blooms which rob water of oxygen, among other deleterious effects. Haiti has been identified as a hotspot for the death of coral and sea grass due to effluent.
Can these problems be reversed? Clearly the international agencies that pour millions of dollars in aid each year into Haiti for environmental remediation believe so. And Mongabay will soon publish a story about efforts to restore mangroves that have seen moderate success.
But if the planetary boundary framework has relevance in Haiti, there is an important warning within it that must be considered. The environmental alterations that infringe on the boundaries do not necessarily trigger changes that occur smoothly and gradually over time. They may suddenly leap from one state to another, and once they do, it could be hard to get back to stability.
Such a change is at the core of Fernando Jaramillo’s efforts to apply the freshwater boundary at the local scale. He studied damage caused to Colombia’s mangroves when road construction cut off freshwater supplies to wetlands there. Salinity increased, the mangroves died, and water evaporated leaving behind salt, which poisoned croplands.
You would think, he says, that restoring freshwater flows would reverse the situation. But this has so far not happened. Despite years of environmental remediation, a salt crust remains on the surface, preventing freshwater infiltration and mangrove regrowth.
“The damage is unrepairable,” he declares. “The wetland will never go back to what it was.”
But can the alarming changes seen in Haiti be counted as proof of looming tipping points? Certainly, mangroves there have proven notoriously difficult to restore. Coasts are littered with the remains of abandoned mangrove nurseries and failed plantations
More compelling evidence might be found up mountain slopes. Above Leogane local groups and international NGOs have spent decades replanting trees once cut for charcoal. It’s an arduous task that requires painstaking community outreach and participation by hundreds of farmers, each with tiny landholdings that need to be knitted together to form a contiguous forest.
New trees offer a multitude of benefits to farmers, of course, but what about the largest benefit: reversing soil erosion and precipitation runoff in the watershed? Piasecki says he’s run the numbers and it doesn’t look good.
The trees “improve things for the people living there,” he says. “But not from a more holistic ecological standpoint. It’s just not enough. We would need to do another 200 years of this [reforestation] in order to have a measurable impact.”
Not everyone thinks the Planetary Boundaries framework can be applied at a local scale. Johan Rockstrom, one of its original proponents, argues that the boundaries are relevant precisely because they operate at a planetary scale, keeping the entire Earth system well-tuned. But he does think some specific places can provide important case studies for analyzing the interactions between the different boundaries.
“If you want to attain the sustainable development goals, if you want to deliver on the Paris climate agreement, if you want to lift people out of poverty, if you want to somehow feed people at any scale,” Rockstrom says, “you have to focus on all the planet boundaries simultaneously because they do interact and they do create feedbacks and interactions that undermine your possibility of securing that more resilient, safe space. And Haiti is unfortunately, a poster child of how transgressing boundaries at the local level creates this vicious cycle of gradual decline of your coping capacity, your adaptive capacity, your ability to rise.”
The current protests in Haiti are not about water. They’re mostly about the price of gasoline, but as the planetary boundaries framework suggests, everything is connected. Later in the day my friend P. texts me back to say he found water. After walking hours through town, crossing armed barricades, he was able to buy two days worth of water in little plastic sachets.
“Now the challenge is to find some energy for working,” he writes.
Banner image: Residents of Port-au-Prince wait outside a store to purchase bottled water in the middle of protests that have paralyzed Haiti’s cities throughout September. Image by Lesly Dorcin.
Mongabay story contributor Conrad Fox is currently co-producing an online course on coastal resilience for Haitian journalists. Find out more at studiocanek.com
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