Most people are familiar with the overwhelming problems faced by the people of Haiti after the earthquake in January. Images of the destroyed city of Port au Prince give a sense of the work that will be needed to rebuild that society.
It isn’t only the people in the city who are struggling, and not all the work is a matter of reconstructing fallen infrastructure. The rural areas have very little infrastructure to begin with, and the basic sustainability of the natural environment is in question.
Columbia Water Center research scientist Lior Asaf is working in Haiti to understand the existing environmental conditions, and look for ways to improve people’s lives for the long term. He is working with an Earth Institute, Center for International Earth Science Network (CIESN), program called the Haiti Regeneration Project, which also involves the United Nations Environment Programme and Hatian partners.
This watershed management project will take a long-term approach, 20 years in fact, to find sustainable solutions to the problems faced by rural Hatians, and is made up of an interdisciplinary team working in reforestation, agro-forestry, sustainable energy, and flood risk management. One part of the project focuses on the Port Piment watershed basin on the southwestern end of the island. The main town of Port a Piment is a seven hour drive from Port au Prince, and is the only part of the area with road access.
Asaf, who traveled to Haiti for ten days in April, says, “I work in the hydrology area, to determine climatic abilities as well as monitoring the water situation, like flood protection, soil erosion. We did a survey of the entire water shed, measurement of water quality and stream discharge, and established a monitoring network,including rain gauges in 4 locations in the watershed, three of them in quite remote locations. The one in Port a Piment itself actually transfers data to a satellite.”
He found a very serious situation. “There is severe soil erosion. The river is actually expanding in the floodplain. You have houses and agricultural areas that are near the embankments of the river, and now they are losing the land in places. People who live by the river are very concerned. They told us that in the last 10 years it has been losing 5 to 10 meters every year.”
The soil erosion on the floodplain is so extensive, he says, “Because they’ve cut most of the vegetation. There’s nothing to hold the water. There’s no trees, no vegetation. When you have more severe storms, there’s more discharge and you have more erosion by the rivers.”
“There is no soil conservation practice. Everywhere people work the land. There’s almost no area that is not under cultivation.”
“You can see gullies starting. Once it starts, it never stops. You can see how the land is actually washed away. For the long term, they’re just going to be losing more and more soil.
“This is not sustainable agriculture. Their crop yields are going down, they’re losing soil fertility. This is not just where we are working, this is the entire country. There’s now no tree cover, in comparison with the Dominican Republic, where there is still 30% treecover left.
“Another issue is access to safe water. Each family in the village gets their water mainly either at streams or springs. There’s no protection for the springs. They just come and get water with jerry cans. Most of the water that I tested was contaminated.”
In Port a Piment, he says, “We’re installing the satellite linked station. It doesn’t measure just rain. It records wind velocity, wind direction, rain intensity and accumulation, humidity, soil temperature. It’s all transmitted directly to the satellite, and you don’t have to go back to collect the data.
Asaf will be travelling back to Haiti in July to continue the study and retrieve data from the tiny computers attached to the inland monitoring stations.
The Haiti Regeneration Project is undergoing a reorientation process following the earthquake, and the web site is under development.
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