Drought and climate change in Haiti

Rony Janvier | January 25, 2016

Water cisterns, built with concrete blocks, hold rain water collected from the house roof. Photo: CWS

Water cisterns, built with concrete blocks, hold rain water collected from the house roof. Photo: CWS

In recent years Haiti has suffered from a recurring drought characterized by the lack of rainfall and drying up of several water sources in rural areas. One of its root causes is the uncontrolled felling of trees in local forests for the production of charcoal. Last summer, especially, the heat rose to an unimaginable, even unbearable degree, which left us all without doubt that the situation is far from being improved. These anomalies of temperature are due to global climate disruption, which has exacerbated the problem of environmental degradation.

But Haiti’s drought is also a worrying consequence of global shifts in atmospheric conditions and changes in temperature and weather patterns, caused by human-induced climate change and increased carbon emissions.  Such effects are being seen all over the world – not just in Haiti – and they have been devastating for poor farmers everywhere.  What is so tragic is that despite Haiti’s acute deforestation, its contribution to global carbon emissions has been less than minimal.  Poor Haitian farmers and rural families, however, bear a heavy burden for problems they did not cause.  

Drought has serious consequences for the environment and for the Haitian population as a whole.  Drought causes huge losses.  It is the reason for the scarcity of local products on the domestic market, for the strong presence of imported products and for the reduction of exports, which, were unacceptably low even before the drought. Drought is also responsible for the rising cost of basic necessities.  Last year’s spring season of cultivation, which normally runs from the end of February to August – and during which 60 percent of Haitian national production is grown – was severely disrupted.  According to the National Coordination of Food Security, in 2015 60 to 80 percent of production losses were registered during this period, which is normally the most productive of Haiti’s three agricultural seasons.  Cattle could not find sustainable water sources and died in large numbers.  With the exception of heat resistant crops such as cassava, garden plants were unable to withstand the heat.  At the same time, inflation increased. The exchange rate is now 55 gourdes for US $1, up from a 42 goudes to the dollar a few months ago.

Given the unavailability of water and loss of spring crops identified, the Haitian Minister of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Rural Development in Haiti, Mr. Fresner Dorcin, launched an emergency appeal to NGOs, International Organizations and the United Nations agencies last June. The Minister requested that all stakeholders give their support to the drought effort by focusing their interventions to improve water control through rehabilitation of irrigation systems, construction of family and community tanks and construction of small dams as early measures to curb potential drought-caused damage in the coming crop year. However, rural households were already facing an emergency situation of water shortages then and are still facing them today.  Families need and deserve urgent actions to address drought now.   

Where will that help come from? Will the government of Haiti alone be able to respond?  And to what extent will it receive the international assistance it desperately needs to help poor farmers adapt and prepare for drought, as well as the ramifications of changing climate, such as failed harvests, dead livestock, lost livelihoods and growing hunger?    Outcomes of the Paris  Agreement have been met with hailed as a triumph, especially by countries whose historic carbon emissions bear far greater responsibility for climate change than Haiti’s.   But we in Haiti are far less clear how the poorest, drought ridden communities are going to benefit.

The World Food Programme estimates that 30 percent of the Haitian population is food insecure and more than 165,000 are severely so. Five percent of children suffer chronic malnutrition while nearly half the women of reproductive age are anemic. According to the UN, nearly 50 percent of people in the Northwest Department of Haiti are food insecure, and between 20 and 50 percent near the Dominico-Haitian border. For a country which only a few generations ago was able to feed itself, these are staggering and deeply worrying statistics.    

What of the areas of intervention of Church World Service? Have they been spared from this tragedy? NO! They have not. In the Northwest department, a strategic area of intervention for ​​CWS, families have lost almost all their crops. Last year, climate change aggravated the situation in a region which was already one of the most vulnerable departments of the country.  In the past, some localities still recorded a few drops of rain, but now, people are wondering what to do while they are farmers and their only source of income to meet the need their families comes from the land.

In Lacoma, a communal section of Jean Rabel in the Northwest department, CWS has built family cisterns used to store water in order to help them overcome drought.  However, because there has barely been any rain since these tanks were constructed, the beneficiaries are still waiting for results of this project.  Families are waiting for rain; it is the only the presence of these tanks that gives them hope for the future.  In Ganthier and Boen, two communities in the municipality of Croix-des-Bouquets near the southern Dominico-Haitian border, farmers have had the same experience and have nearly lost their entire crop. Drought does not spare anyone.

The rising prices of basic necessities, loss of crops, the depreciation of the Haitian gourde, drought, starvation – all this is the preamble to a real humanitarian crisis in Haiti.

Rony Janvier is a Programme Officer with CWS in Haiti.