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Sandy fuels growing fears of food security crisis in Haiti

Before Sandy dumped more than 20 inches of rain on Haiti, rural towns like Petit-Goâve were relatively prosperous, their crops of banana, pigeon peas and yam helping feed the island-nation’s southern peninsula.

The hillside farms and plantations were among those that had been mercifully spared from previous disasters and disease in a country struggling under the weight of a severe food crisis. Now, with ruined roads and crops destroyed throughout the country, international aid and Haitian authorities are worried about a worsening food crisis in a country still recovering from a year of drought, a weak economy and a previous storm.

“Whatever was left of a potential harvest is gone,” said Johan Peleman, head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs here. “Even the banana harvests seem to be gone.”

On Sunday, Haiti’s government reiterated its appeal the international community for emergency humanitarian aid to deal with Sandy’s disaster. Five days earlier, the government declared an island-wide state of emergency, initially assessing losses to livestock, crops and infrastructure from Sandy at $104 million. The southern peninsula, which includes scores of rural communities, accounts for one-third of the losses, said Gary Mathieu, head of Haiti’s National Food Security Coordination unit. The south’s largest city, Les Cayes, is reporting a 70 percent loss of its avocado, breadfruit and corn harvests, washed away during four consecutive days of rain.

The losses come just nine weeks after Tropical Storm Isaac pounded a nearby region, resulting in $70 million in damages and rising food prices.

The one-two punch threatens to make the country’s poorest population even poorer.

“Life will become even more expensive,” said Jeannita Constant, 29, staring at her field of fallen plantain trees as Sandy’s relentless rains fell here. “Lots and lots of money have been lost.”

In the far northwest, farmers were only now preparing to replant after a drought earlier this year when Sandy’s downpour soaked their fields.

“It takes a certain farmer with confidence to try and plant,” said Comete Rigaud, 40, a farmer in Cabaret, a depressed but bucolic village between Port-de-Paix and Jean-Rabel. “If it’s not the sun, it’s the rain.”

Food insecurity woes are nothing new in Haiti, a place where high food prices in 2008 triggered rioting and the ouster of the prime minister. Months later, four back-to-back storms, led to children dying of malnutrition in a remote village in the southeast mountains.

Haiti’s latest disaster comes amid recent anti-government protests over rising food costs, the country’s continuing struggle to dig out from the January 2010 earthquake and the world’s worst cholera epidemic. Ironically, Sandy hit two weeks ahead of a Haitian government conference on extreme poverty scheduled for Tuesday through Friday. The keynote speaker, World Bank President Jim Kim, will be making his first official visit to the region.

Earlier this year, at the request of the government, the Bank provided help to farmers in the northeast after they lost peanut, plantain and other crops to pests and drought. Bank officials also remained concerned about the price hikes that ensued, including an inexplicable jump in the price of imported U.S. rice that did not match international price trends.

Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe, trying to calm mounting discontent over the hikes, stepped up free food distributions, announced a rice donation from Japan and launched a rice commission to address the growing food security concerns. He also announced the government was considering opening public food stores and food-storage, measures international experts warn have shown to be very inefficient and ineffective in helping consumers.

“My concern is what the government will do as the situation does not seem to be as dire as in 2008 in terms of price levels,” said Diego Arias Carballo, a senior agricultural economist with the World Bank.

Following the global food price hikes in 2008, Haiti introduced a rice subsidy program, which a World Bank study says benefited importers, and not consumers.

“You need to have more of a targeted and efficient way of helping families with these types of crises and shocks,” Arias said.

Sandy’s damage, combined with Isaac’s, the rising food costs and a drought that hit the northern regions of the country earlier this year, means up to two million Haitians are now at risk of malnutrition, the UN said Friday at a press briefing in Geneva.

“These people will continue to struggle till the next large harvest in mid-2013,” said Myrta Kaulard, Haiti director for the UN World Food Program. “The struggle will be tough.”

Kaulard said what Haiti and humanitarian aid groups need is cash; cash-for-work programs are needed to employ people in affected areas to rehabilitate the land; nutrition programs are needed for pregnant and nursing mothers and children younger than 5 — all now even more at risk; and school meals programs need to be maintained.

“There are important resource gaps in all these programs,” she said, noting that funding shortfalls recently forced WFP to cut a number of schools from its meals program.

Changes in Haiti’s rain pattern — dry spells and floods — affected food security in almost every region of the country, according to a complex analysis carried out by the government’s food security unit after Isaac.

The effects are obvious along the 150-mile stretch between Port-au-Prince and the far northwest, the most neglected region of the country. Sorghum and corn fields have been abandoned by farmers and left to fallow; sun-burned rice stalks have been ruined by water shortages; and bean production is down everywhere, either because fields got too much water or not enough.

In the southeast, Isaac wiped out banana, breadfruit and coffee crops.

“You see us here? We’re going to die from hunger,” said Lisette Moise, 46, a mother of eight, sitting next to a sun-scorched rice paddy in the Artibonite River Valley, the country’s breadbasket. “We can’t send our children to school, we can’t do anything.”

Moise and other rice farmers say this year’s weather skyrocketed prices.

“Even if you could afford to buy the cup of beans, you can’t afford the cooking oil,” said farmer Odette Casseus, standing nearby. “Some days you just feeling like screaming to God, given the devastating state you are in.”