Foreign aid in Haiti making a difference

IN HAITI: A farmer who will benefit from a new water-diversion dam just outside Port-au-Prince walks through his field.
IN HAITI: A farmer who will benefit from a new water-diversion dam just outside Port-au-Prince walks through his field.

It can be easy to be cynical about foreign aid in Haiti, but a deeper look reveals that Haiti has made real progress in recent years. President Michel Martelly’s inauguration of a world-class water diversion dam just outside Port-au-Prince this month is an example of the kind of progress that the American taxpayer makes possible and yet is seldom aware of.

The Rivière Grise, where the new water-diversion dam was built, is a fast, flood-prone river that supplies irrigation water to an important agricultural area called the Cul-de-Sac plain.

When a hurricane destroyed the original dam in 1978, thousands of farmers in nearby Cul-de-Sac were left without a permanent structure to divert water year-round into their irrigation system and to protect them from floods. This lack of infrastructure limited their ability to grow crops during the dry season and made them vulnerable to destructive flooding during hurricanes and heavy rainfall.

I personally witnessed the devastation caused by floods in 2012, when Hurricanes Isaac and Sandy struck within months of each other. The river ate away at the banks before my eyes, and I was reminded of just how vulnerable these farmers were to climate shocks.

Earlier this month, President Martelly, USAID, U.S.-based development firm Chemonics, and engineering firm CH2M Hill formally inaugurated a brand new water-diversion dam on the site of the old dam. Designed to withstand twice the destructive power of the worst hurricane to strike Haiti in the past 50 years, the $8.3 million dam brings a big return on investment and could serve as a model for flood prevention and improving agriculture across Haiti.

This dam alone, along with 25 miles of rehabilitated canals in the Rivière Grise irrigation system, will ensure year-round irrigation for 20,000 acres, allow more than 12,000 farmers to grow up to three crops per year instead of just one or two, and protect 50,000 people from flooding.

From an engineering perspective, the structure is a first in Haiti. Beyond including a nearly 500-yard barrage, water-control gate, sediment basin and spillway, it introduces to Haiti a technology called “interlocking spurs.” These are essentially arms of sheet pile and mounded earth that jut into the river.

They work by slowing water and concentrating it in the center of a riverbed, and have been used in other countries to protect riverbanks and reduce flooding. They were not part of the original design of the dam on the Rivière Grise. But after the chief engineer also witnessed the effects of Sandy, he added spurs to supplement the gabions and enhanced the infrastructure to withstand even greater force.

The entire water-diversion structure was constructed in nine months using steel sheet piles instead of concrete, which cut construction time in half and reduced costs without sacrificing quality.

Perhaps most important, Haiti’s new dam and rehabilitated irrigation system are set up to be managed in a sustainable manner by the very people they are meant to benefit. Haiti’s Ministry of Agriculture owns the dam and is responsible for its maintenance, but to control the gate and to maintain and operate the Rivière Grise irrigation system, USAID and Chemonics established and trained a water user’s association made up of local farmers.

The association is responsible for collecting the $10 annual user fee per acre for maintenance and management of the irrigation system. Having already seen their productivity double from better access to water and new farming techniques, farmers overwhelmingly support the association and are willing to pay the fee.

The dam is great news for the people of Haiti and a step in the right direction to boosting the country’s agricultural production. There is still a lot of work to do, but progress is not hard to see if you know where to look.

Jean-Robert Estimé is Chemonics’ director of the USAID-funded Feed the Future-West/WINNER project in Haiti. Previously, he served as Haiti’s minister of foreign affairs, deputy minister of finance, and ambassador to France. He is the son of former president Dumarsais Estimé.