Deadly Floods in Haiti Blamed on Deforestation, Poverty

The torrents of water that raged down upon Haiti, killing more people than in all other hurricanes this year, are testimony to a human-made ecological disaster fed by poverty that has transformed once-verdant hills into a moonscape of bedrock ravaged by ravines.

GONAIVES, Haiti — The torrents of water that raged down upon this city, killing more people than in all other hurricanes this year, are testimony to a human-made ecological disaster fed by poverty that has transformed once-verdant hills into a moonscape of bedrock ravaged by ravines.

More than 98 percent of Haiti's forests are gone, leaving no topsoil to hold rains. Even the mango and avocado trees have started to vanish, destroying a vital food source for the poor to make way for another necessity of the impoverished: charcoal for cooking.

"The situation will continue, and other catastrophes are foreseeable," said Jean-Andre Victor, an agronomist and one of Haiti's top ecologists.

At least 700 are dead with another 1,000 missing and presumed dead. In May, light rains that turned to deadly floods because of deforestation killed more than 3,000 people on the barren southern border of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

"When you remove vegetation, the topsoil washes away. The earth isn't capable of absorbing rainfall," said Rick Perera of CARE, a Brussels-based humanitarian organization that supports alternative energy programs in Haiti.


Less tree cover also means less regular rain, since trees "breathe" water vapor into the air, and the water table is dropping. That makes for poorer farmers, the backbone of Haiti.

It's one of the poorest country's in the world, though just a 1.5-hour flight from Miami, with most of its 8 million people jobless and insecurity an ongoing problem that discourages investors despite the change of government.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan urged donors this week to help Haiti recover from the "devastating natural disaster." But it's very much a human-made one.

Most Haitians are descendants of African slaves brought in the late 1600s by French colonizers, who destroyed tens of thousands of acres of virgin forest to plant the cane that made Haiti the world's largest sugar producer. More wood was cut to fuel the sugar mills. Entire forests were shipped to Europe to make furniture of mahogany and dyes from campeachy.

When rebellious slaves defeated Napoleon's army and Haiti became the world's first black republic in 1804, great plantations were divided among the slaves.

Under an inherited French law, land in Haiti is shared among a man's heirs. One of the fastest growing populations in the world — Haitian women average five births each — has reduced the average holding to little more than a half-acre. That's not enough to support a family of seven, even in a good rainy season.

Pressed for income, farmers chopped trees to make and sell charcoal.

From the air, you can see the border with the Dominican Republic, which shares Hispaniola island with Haiti. Lush forests stop suddenly and give way to barrenness. Vast stretches of the Dominican Republic remain in the hands of a wealthy few.

The difference in vegetation also is reflected in the death tolls: The Dominican Republic lost just 19 people to Jeanne, including 12 people who drowned in swollen rivers.

In 1950, some 25 percent of Haiti was covered with forest, said Victor, the ecologist. In 1987, it was 10 percent. By 1994, it was down to 4 percent. Now, field work by international and Haitian scientists shows only about 1.4 percent of Haiti's land is forested, he said. Haiti covers 10,700 square miles (27,820 square kilometers), about the size of Taiwan and slightly larger than the U.S. state of Maryland.

In the northwest town of Gonaives, where rebels launched their rebellion against Aristide in February, Jeanne lashed the area with drenching rains for some 30 hours. Water-filled valleys behind the mountains unleashed torrents of water that bloated four rivers surrounding the gritty city.

In most other countries, the onslaught likely would have caused little more than water damage. In Haiti, even a normal rain shower can become a costly disaster. While the international community rushed emergency relief to Haiti, a longer-term solution is needed.

"The root of the problem is that we have to go and reforest the hills, and until we do that, every two, three, four years after some heavy rain, the same thing could happen again," interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue said after the May disaster.

The United States, Haiti's largest direct donor, promised then to help build water catchment systems and plant more trees. In 20 years, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has planted some 60 million trees, while between 10 and 20 million are chopped down each year, according to David Adams, USAID director in Haiti.

There are small-scale replanting projects and pilot programs using alternative cooking fuels such as solar energy or propane, Perera said. Still, 71 percent of the energy used in Haiti comes from charcoal, Victor said.

Though the deforestation is obvious, many steeped in superstition believe the disasters are spurred by a higher power, a belief that officials say compounds the problem.

"It was God who made this flood," said Eliphet Joseph, a 43-year-old salesman.

Others blame decades of official corruption and mismanagement in the country that has suffered more than 30 coups d'etats.

"The whole country's environment is messed up; that's why we had these (floods)," said Cherly Etienne, 28, who lost her cousin and aunt when the torrents tore down her home in Gonaives.

Gerald Murray, a University of Florida anthropologist who directed a U.S.-funded reforestation program for about 20 years in Haiti, said the blow from floods could be softened by tree-planting programs.

"You can never say a flood's not going to happen, but the likelihood of lethal flooding will be reduced," Murray said.

Associated Press