Water in Haiti: primary need, or luxury?

Margot DeGreef | March 21, 2016

Residents of Haiti's Northwest department on their long journey for water. Photo: Samuel Paul

Residents of Haiti’s Northwest department on their long journey for water. Photo: Samuel Paul

The soil is dry and cracked, houses are dusty, animals skinny. Inhabitants of rural communities in the Northwest department of Haiti have not seen such a prolonged and extreme drought before. Water is without a doubt the one and most important primary need of people to live and to survive. Yet, even at the occasion of World Water Day 2016, for so many people water is still a luxury.

Women and children carrying buckets of water on their heads; a common sight in Haiti. How far did they walk? How often?

The year 2015 was an extremely dry one. The National Coordination of Food Security, known as CNSA, warned about an emergency situation as a result of the extreme drought. There were high losses of harvests, causing a lack of local products on the market and an increase in prices.

The Northwest has been hit hard by the lack of rainfall, leading to an estimated 80 percent loss in crops, as well as death of animals due to a shortage of food and water. As a result, people depend on market purchases for their food, with fewer products available from their own production for consumption or sales. While revenues have decreased, prices have increased as much as 50 percent for corn and peas or even 100 percent for black beans. Dependence on commercial activities has therefore increased, as has the need for microcredit. However, small commerce is also affected, due to reduced purchasing power. In order to adjust, families switch to lower quality (cheaper) food and also diminish the number of meals per day, thus deteriorating their food security situation. In addition, throughout the Northwest department an increase in the production of charcoal has been observed, resulting in more deforestation. Rural exodus and migration towards the Bahamas and elsewhere has also increased, with people risking their lives to cross on small, overloaded boats.

CNSA defines the lower part of the Northwest department as an area of concern, which is exactly where CWS’s priority intervention area on food security in Haiti is. In line with priorities set by the Ministry of Agriculture, CWS facilitated the construction of 12 water cisterns in the Northwest, not only providing access to water for daily needs such as cooking, cleaning, laundry and bathing, but also allowing vegetable gardens to provide an important addition to people’s diets.

Farmers remain dependent on irregular rainfall and changing climate conditions, which have an impact on agricultural production, animal breeding and commerce. People have to walk further to get water, while there is fighting and long lines at the few water sources where the water streams have largely diminished. First priority for future adaptation and real strengthened resilience is access to water, which can be realised using different methods depending on the specific community and possibilities, including drilling of wells, water catchment, and cisterns.

With water (other than complete dependence on rain), opportunities increase in Haiti’s Northwest department.

Margot DeGreef is CWS’s Country Representative, Haiti.