The season of dread returns

Decades of deforestation left Haiti defenceless against last year’s catastrophic hurricanes. But the Caribbean island hopes attempts to save it from the storms will save lives this year, Suzanne Goldenberg reports.

The flood waters were washing cows out to sea and spitting up boulders as if they were corks. Garvins Novembre realised he and his infant daughter could easily die in their hut on the beach, so as the water poured down from the hills, the fisherman entrusted his life to a boat made from a hollowed-out tree trunk. He set off paddling along what had been – before the storm hit – the main road of the provincial Haitian town of Petite Rivière des Nippes.

He passed submerged shanties, tin roofs invisible beneath the water line, waterborne cars and trucks. Behind him, a freshly built church, seemingly sturdy, was left a disembowelled shell, pews and rear wall sucked out by the sea. “It was terrifying. I thought we would die,” Novembre said.

That was August 26 last year, when hurricane Gustav made landfall on Haiti. Barely a week later, Haiti was hit again, by hurricane Hanna, and then hurricane Ike a week after that. Watching the mainstream news during last year’s Atlantic hurricane season, it would be easy to form the impression that Gustav posed most danger to the Louisiana coastline. Certainly memories of 2005’s hurricane Katrina are still fresh in Louisiana, but Caribbean states like Haiti have far less capacity to deal with the storms when they come.

By the time the tropical storm season had ended, Haiti – already one of the poorest nations on earth – was a billion dollars poorer. More than 1,100 people were dead or missing. Thousands had lost their homes, and there were scattered reports of hunger.

Now the season of dread has returned. Novembre is convinced, as are Haiti’s business and government leaders and the international organisations that have helped the country survive, that this season could be the most devastating in living memory.

“Unfortunately, I do think that we are going to have a lot of deaths. That is my reading of the situation,” said Ronald Joseph Toussaint, the environment ministry official who drafted the Haitian government’s policy on climate change and natural disaster. A direct hit on the capital, Port-au-Prince, where overcrowded slums cling to the slopes above the town, would be pure catastrophe. He said: “All the conditions are met to have a worst-case scenario in Port-au-Prince in case we [are] hit by a hurricane.”

A constellation of factors – crushing poverty and environmental degradation, political instability and bad governance, ill-conceived international aid efforts and sheer geographical bad luck – have crippled Haiti’s ability to withstand and recover from tropical storms. “Haiti is a mosaic of vulnerabilities,” said Toussaint.

Now the prospect of another calamitous storm season has galvanised the international community, with former US president Bill Clinton — who became the United Nations envoy to the country in May — joining a new effort to make sure that this year, at least, does not bring Haiti to the tipping point.

There is, however, a bigger question: does Haiti offer a cautionary tale of what can happen to a country that does not adapt to climate change? The Guardian has made the first of a number of visits to Haiti over the course of this year’s Atlantic storm season to report on the country’s efforts to adapt.

In its updated hurricane forecast in early August, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted that seven to 11 named storms would rise up out of the Atlantic before the end of November, with three to six developing into full-blown hurricanes.

Haiti could well be on their route; the names of hurricanes past slip easily into conversation here. Jeanne, in 2004, was the deadliest in recent memory, killing more than 3,000. Last year’s quartet – Fay, Gustav, Hanna and Ike – killed 500 in Gonaïves, and caused widespread destruction in Nippes and southern Haiti. For the old timers, there was Flora in 1963, which killed about 5,000 people in Haiti, blowing the roofs off villages and levelling entire banana plantations.

But, the hurricane veterans say, even far lesser storms are bringing huge devastation, with intense flooding and storm surges. For grandmother Swazilliya Pierre Louis, 52, the 2008 storm season destroyed a lifetime of hard work, building up a small business selling snacks to working men in the provincial market town of Miragoâne. When Gustav hit, flooding her tin-roofed wooden shack, Louis had just enough time to grab her purse and her Bible. Her savings, which were under the bed, were lost to the rising waters.

She got US$125 in compensation to try to rebuild her life, but it wasn’t enough to rebuild her shack. “This last storm I saw was the worst. Even with Flora, the water wasn’t so high. A child could stand up in it,” she said. “Now I’ve got nothing left. These aren’t my clothes. I even had to borrow bedding.”

The Haitian government readily admits that even middling storms are wreaking widespread and severe destruction. The country’s natural defences now are destroyed. More than 98% of Haiti’s forests have been cut down – mainly by peasants desperate to turn the trees into charcoal they can sell as cooking fuel – leaving barren hills, and soil that is easily washed away. Twenty-five of the 30 water basins, natural systems that once directed rain and flood water safely out to sea, have been clogged or otherwise damaged. The mangroves that once protected coastal areas have vanished.

In Google map images of Hispaniola — the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic — the western, Haitian, half is bare.

In truth, the loss was visible long before satellite imagery became widespread. In 1985, the conservationist Jacques Cousteau spent several months off the island on his vessel Calypso and produced a documentary warning that Haiti was losing a dangerous amount of tree cover. The country’s steep hillsides, which already made farming difficult, were at increased risk of erosion. Debris from successive storms was being washed into the sea, driving the fish further offshore, where Haitian fishermen in their dug-outs struggled to compete against modern trawlers from other countries.

Early efforts to save Haiti’s forests were misguided, or defeated by political turmoil. One scheme by the US Agency for International Development encouraged peasants to grow fast-growing eucalyptus trees – only to see them swiftly cut down for fuel. Other efforts collapsed in the 1990s, when the international community blocked fuel and other shipments to Haiti after the 1991 overthrow of the elected leader, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. More than 40% of forests were lost in that decade alone.

It took until last year for the country’s elite to begin to see a connection between the devastation of the landscape and natural disaster. “I have to admit that for the majority of the business society, managing water, managing soil, climate change, these are all things that they talk about on CNN and BBC, or that you hear Al Gore going on about,” said Gregory Brandt, a prominent businessman. “It’s not for us. I’d say the majority was aware but not concerned.”

The international community also was slow to grasp the connection, said Anita Swarup, who has worked as a consultant on climate change for Oxfam, Unicef and other organisations. “As far as I can see, little or nothing has been done in terms of dealing with climate change,” she said. “The international community is not sufficiently focused on the impacts of climate change on a poor country like Haiti and considerably more needs to be done.”

Now that reality is inescapable because of the increasing severity and frequency of storms. The Haitian government and the international community are fully engaged, but those on the front line of efforts to repair the environmental degradation that has left Haiti so exposed to climate change now admit they feel overwhelmed.

In the last few years Oxfam and other international organisations have been working with farmers to build up the hillsides to prevent the massive rush of water towards the sea. Farmers are being encouraged to plant avocado and mango trees, which could help the soil cling to the slopes and could bring income over time. They also are being asked to try to shore up ravines with hedges or even sandbags.

But it often feels like too little too late, said Alexandre Pierre Claudel, an agronomist working with Oxfam in Petite-Rivière-de-Nippes. “It’s like we have to keep starting over and over. Nothing lasts for more than a year, and then I am always afraid a hurricane will come,” he said. “The farmers are not ready at all. They are relying on God and praying that nothing will happen.”

A year on from 2008’s storm quartet, Haitian government officials have launched an intense push to avoid the worst of the coming season of storms. Town and village councils in the southern Nippes region have drawn up evacuation plans and alarm systems. But most of the defence teams do not even have radios, let alone cars, to move people to higher ground.

And if they did, the main road to Port-au-Prince remains completely submerged by an inland lake that burst its banks in last year’s flooding. Fisherman now row travellers across the break.

Even in Gonaïves – the focus of international relief for Haiti, with visits from Clinton and celebrities including musician Wyclef Jean – a third of the town remains in ruins. Dozens of people are still living in plastic tents on a scrap of waste-ground on the edge of town. Gary Dupiton, the town engineer, thinks it will take five years to restore Gonaïves completely, provided it does not flood again.

Dupiton has spent the last few months overseeing an ambitious project to widen the La Quinte river, the biggest of several that empty at the town, so that it does not burst its banks once again. In Dupiton’s best-case scenario, a quarter of the city — Haiti’s third largest — will be flooded in the event of a heavy tropical storm.

And in the worst-case scenario? Duputin does not want to dwell on that prospect. He holds up his hands with fingers crossed. “We are going to have to wait and see,” he said. “Everyone is crossing their fingers and hoping there will be no hurricanes this year.”

Copyright Guardian News and Media Limited 2009

Homepage image from UN Photo/Logan Abassi