An increasing number of Haitians are at risk of being driven deeper into poverty and hunger as Haiti faces its worst food crisis in 15 years, the United Nations World Food Program said Tuesday.
The U.N. agency, which is launching an $84 million appeal to help stave off extreme malnutrition and deaths in an already fragile Haiti, is blaming the emerging crisis on the El Niño weather phenomenon. Already blamed for some of the worst drought conditions around the globe, the weather event has left some Haitian farmers facing up to 70 percent crop losses and has doubled the number of food insecure people in the country since September.
This is really a severe food crisis. Wendy Bigham, World Food Program deputy Haiti director
“We are seeing the malnutrition rates dramatically increased,” said Wendy Bigham, WFP deputy country director. “This is really a severe food crisis.”
The crisis couldn’t come at a worse time for Haiti, which is facing a power vacuum after its president left office Sunday without an elected successor. A 120-day provisional government has yet to be installed, and some in the opposition are accusing the country’s only sworn-in elected officials, the parliament, of staging “a coup d’etat” after the leaders of both chambers signed a last-minute deal with outgoing President Michel Martelly. The accord outlines the steps for putting in an interim president and consensus prime minister in the coming days.
Add to the ongoing power vacuum, the country’s domestic currency, the gourde, continues to depreciate against the U.S. dollar. Before the devastating Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake, it cost 43 gourdes to buy one greenback. Today, it’s 61.25 gourdes.
The rampantly depreciating gourde, combined with the drought, have created inflationary pressures, said economist Kesner Pharel.
“In 2015, the average price in the economy, particularly the food price, reached the highest level since 2008 when there was an international food crisis,” he said noting that inflation was more than 12 percent in December.
We are in an a situation that is extremely difficult and if it’s not addressed, it risks degenerating further. Abnel Desarmours of Haiti’s food security unit.
The rise of food prices in Haiti is difficult because food spending represents more than 50 percent of a Haitian family’s budget, while more than 50 percent of the family’s basic staples are imported.
“We are in a situation that is extremely difficult and if it’s not addressed, it risks degenerating further in the coming months,” said Abnel Desarmours, the interim coordinator of Haiti’s National Food Security Coordination Unit.
Desamours says the current food insecurity risks are as high as in the aftermath of 2012’s Hurricane Sandy or after four back-to-back hurricanes battered the country in 2008. After destroying crops, the string of storms left hundreds of thousands of children at risk of acute malnutrition. In the southeast mountainside village of Baie d’Orange, for example, 26 children died in the span of a month from severe malnutrition. Others recovered after international aid workers, who found them with brittle orange hair, skinny arms and legs and bloated stomachs, rescued them.
And while Haiti’s northwest department, for example, has a long history with dry spells in a country that boasts two rainy seasons, Desamours said the current crisis is part of the “prolonged drought that has been grappling the country since 2014 and was accentuated in 2015.”
“From 2014 to 2015, agriculture production has diminished considerably,” he said.
Bigham said while Haiti isn’t experiencing famine, she’s concerned that the rise in malnutrition cases could result in deaths and people becoming even more impoverished, as some are starting to “sell their assets … to buy food instead of for health or shelter.”
Fritz Jean, an economist who lives in Haiti’s rural northeast department, said the crisis underscores the need for the country’s future leaders to take a holistic approach to supporting farmers. Politicians only pay lip service to national production, he said.