HAITI

Overflowing plagues post-hurricane recovery efforts

 

jcharles@MiamiHerald.com

(This story was originally published November 7, 2008.)

MALPASSE, Haiti -- The owners of an $18-a-night motel with a dancing floor closed up shop. Fishermen converted their boats into water taxis. Roadside food vendors abandoned coveted spots.

For these workers whose livelihoods depend on Haiti's busiest and most profitable commercial corridor on the border with the Dominican Republic, it wasn't just bad enough that three weeks of deadly summer storms forced them to pack their goods and flee.

Lake Azuei, Haiti's largest lake and a habitat for rare birds and marine life, busted its banks, flooding several towns.

"Before the storms, few people passed but business was good enough, " Viliane Garri├Ęs, 40, said as she stirred a steaming pot of chicken bouillon near a customs building.

"Now even fewer people pass, and business is so slow."

Problems caused by over-spilling lakes continue to plague Haiti months after deadly storms over the summer.

In the South, the Miragoane Lake remains flooded, disrupting lives and commerce.

In Malpasse, government workers successfully cut a temporary road through a nearby mountain two weeks ago and raised the road with gravel to stop flooding from the Azuei.

But even with the resumption of traffic and trade, which generated $18 million in customs revenue last year, authorities acknowledge they have not solved the source of the problem: the lake's rising waters.

Those waters have been rising for at least two years, sparking calls by environmentalists and residents for urgent action.

"The government is very, very concerned about the lake, " said Ludner Remarais, departmental director for the Ministry of Environment for the West region, home to Malpasse and the lake.

Specialists and officials are studying, among other issues, water flow to and from the lake, which sits on a major earthquake fault line.

"We are also studying the effect on the lake's biodiversity, " Remarais said, "because with the problem of sediment buildup in the lake for example, we are almost certain that the biodiversity of the lake is going to change."

A deep blue oasis in an otherwise barren country, the 65-square-mile lake supports a rich habitat of American crocodiles and more than 100 species of plants and migratory birds, including flamingos.

It is the lifeblood of the area's 60,000 people, many of whom fish in its waters.

"We have a problem of deforestation and diminishing tree cover. There is the problem of the quantity of water that Haiti has been receiving, which we attribute to climate change, a global phenomenon. There is also the problem of erosion, " Remarais said.

"If you look at the watersheds surrounding Lake Azuei, you will see that they are in a state of advanced environmental degradation."

He said government officials have stepped up monitoring, including shutting down unregulated sand mining. They also set aside $2.2 million for cleaning canals.

But while the problems at Lake Azuei illustrate the ongoing environmental challenges facing Haiti and the management of its wetlands, others argue that it's yet another example of neglect that has the country on the verge of an environmental catastrophe.

OVERFLOW CANALS

United Nations officials say they repeatedly warned Haitian officials about the need to repair Lake Azuei, beginning with the declogging of two nearby canals that are supposed to stabilize the waters in Trou Caiman, a smaller freshwater lake.

Trou Caiman is supposed to prevent excess water from 32 different rivers and streams from flowing into Azuei.

But since nearby canals are clogged, the excess water flows into Azuei rather than draining into the Atlantic Ocean.

U.N. officials say they estimated that the work would take between three and four months, and offered to help raise the $3 million if Haitian officials agreed to use manual labor.

It was critically important, they said, that banks be reinforced and 13 miles of canals be dredged, as sweet-water springs feed into the lake and the canals into the ocean. The backlog in the rising lake was obvious.

The undertaking would have unclogged the canals -- filled with decades of sediment and trash -- and created thousands of jobs if the dredging were done with manual labor. Plus, the hillsides, stripped of timber, have contributed to deforestation and erosion -- the sliding sediment filling the lake and raising the water level.

Remarais acknowledged the proposal but said solving the problem wasn't as simple as putting shovels in the hands of thousands of workers: The country lacked the money, and studies were needed to ensure that the dredging would not upset an already unstable environment.

"It's not as simple as going in with equipment and start digging, " he said.

Max Antoine II, executive director of the government-run Commission of Border Development, said: "This lake is an ecological system that definitely has to be protected because of the unique fauna that exists there, and it's a source of food for the people."

REVENUE CRUNCHED

Antoine said the nearly two months of flooding have cost the country more than $150,000 in tax revenue, not to mention disrupting the lives of people who depend on the corridor to live.

Salty floodwaters from the lake spoiled valuable crops in nearby Thomazeau, creating more hardship in a country already struggling to feed itself.

The floodwaters have hampered border-driven commerce in Malpasse and prevented immigration and customs employees from showing up for work, raising security concerns over increased drug smuggling along an already-porous border.

"It certainly could have been not as bad as it was if the canals were dredged and the trees weren't deforested, " Antoine said.

Antoine added that the government had plans to dredge the canals earlier this year, but deadly food-related riots in April put the effort on hold.

In this Cul-de-Sac Valley during the recent floods, brightly painted public transport trucks known as tap taps deposited travelers at water's edge. Shoes in hand, they padded through a knee-deep, milky water that lapped across a road hugging the hillside.

Tap taps and smaller cars were left behind, but larger trucks and passenger buses sloshed through the water and reached the Dominican border. The customs office lost two four-wheel-drive trucks.

"It's difficult for anybody to pass, " said Jean Pierre Jean-Louis, 35, a police officer. "The water has paralyzed almost every activity."

Meanwhile, merchants peddling goods and food saw many of their customers disappear while other entrepreneurs adapted.

Blakinson Metellus, 18, and Fleristene Gabriel, 22, ferried travelers across the water in a leaky wooden row boat.

Once a fisherman and a charcoal transporter, they found better income charging slightly more than a dollar per person, carrying five passengers at a time.

"After the storm, " Metellus said, "we started earning more."

Read more Haiti, After the Storms stories from the Miami Herald

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