By Tracy Slagle and Madeleine Rubenstein
Of the many countries at risk from the effects of climate change, small island states are widely considered to be among the most vulnerable. Not only are these countries exposed to direct impacts of climate change, particularly sea level rise, they are also highly sensitive to existing environmental stresses that will be exacerbated by climate change. Overlapping factors such as high population densities, fragile ecosystems, overstressed water resources, and limited institutional capacity mean that small island states face serious challenges to their development in a changing climate.
Haiti is a striking example of how this combination of physical exposure and socioeconomic conditions could lead to extreme climate change vulnerability. Already prone to a wide array of environmental stressors, including flooding, droughts, hurricanes, earthquakes, and landslides, Haiti has also experienced declining GDP since 1982, and has seen serious political turmoil throughout the past few decades. Indeed, Haiti was recently ranked as the most vulnerable country in the world to climate change on an index developed by Maplecroft, a global risk management firm. This index, which takes into account government capacity, population growth and density, agricultural dependency, poverty, and history of armed conflict, underscores the importance of socioeconomic contributors to climate change vulnerability.
Climate Change and Environmental Stressors in Haiti
Haiti lies directly in the path of a hurricane corridor, and is pummeled every rainy season by tropical storms that destroy the country’s crops and infrastructure. In 2008 alone, four hurricanes – Ike, Fay, Hanna and Gustav – struck the country within a space of 30 days, destroying more than 60% of agricultural crops and killing more than 1,000 people. Hurricanes such as these have resulted in the more internal displacement, a higher mortality rate, and greater infrastructure damage in Haiti than any other environmental disaster or climate-related source of degradation.
Climate change has the potential to increase the occurrence and severity of extreme weather events in Haiti, such as hurricanes. Although the effects of climate change on hurricanes and cyclones are uncertain, models generally find an increased severity of tropical storms in a warmer climate. Increased in intensity means both stronger winds and more rainfall in a given storm. In addition to loss of human life, more severe tropical storms would contribute to increased erosion and destruction of infrastructure, crops, and livestock.
Flooding risk will also rise with the intensity of storms and rainfall. Haiti is historically vulnerable to floods, with its urban centers located in the alluvial plains of large river systems. One such urban center, Gonaives, was flooded for days following Hurricane Hanna in 2008, with hundreds stranded on rooftops while the waters slowly receded from the city. Flood damage has been steadily increasing due to deforestation and loss of rainfall-absorbing topsoil. Most recently, heavy rains lasting three days hit Haiti in October of 2011, resulting in extreme flooding in both rural and urban areas, isolation of entire villages, and an increase in observed cases of cholera.
Changing precipitation patterns associated with climate change are expected to contribute to increased incidence of drought in addition to excessive precipitation and attendant flooding. Possible impacts include decreased agricultural yields, general soil degradation, erosion, and desertification.
More frequent and more intense storms and rainfalls could harm Haiti’s food supply, as serious erosion and poor soil health lead to decreased livestock and crop productivity. This could contribute to both malnutrition and increased dependence on imports to meet food security needs. In addition, fish stocks, which play a vital role in meeting Haiti’s nutritional needs, are expected to decline as a result of climate change: changes to ocean temperature, salinity, and turbidity can alter fish stocks and migratory patterns, while the soil that flows into deltas and rivers as a result of erosion tend to push fish farther out to sea.
Haiti’s Vulnerability to Climate Change
Haiti’s vulnerability to climate change is in large part defined by socioeconomic factors that interact with, and exacerbate, the physical impacts of climate change. General environmental degradation, including water pollution and, most visibly, deforestation, weaken the natural systems that need to be strong and resilient in order to survive and flourish in a changing climate: deforested land, for example, loses the protection of trees that naturally serve to keep top soil in place and healthy. Without those trees, soils are less fertile, crops do not thrive, and erosion becomes rampant. The Haitian landscape is plagued by deforestation, with only 3% of forest cover remaining nationally. Charcoal production is a primary contributor to this ongoing problem, with rural populations depending on the income from cutting trees to produce charcoal and sell in urban areas.
Population density and unplanned urban growth exacerbate the stress on the systems most sensitive to the effects of climate change, including food and water resources, as well as waste management services and health care infrastructure. Unplanned growth of urban areas ensures that more of the population is at risk from the impacts of climate change, as migrants settle in some of the areas most exposed to flooding and landslides, including on hillsides and river beds. Haiti is again at particular risk from this, as more than 60% of the country has hillside slopes greater than 20%.
Finally, weak institutional capacity and financial resources limit Haiti’s ability to coordinate effective responses to natural disasters and to take sufficient adaptation measures. Given the political turmoil over the past few decades, from the destructive dictatorship of the Duvaliers to the great social unrest during Jean Bertrand Aristide’s two interrupted terms as President, the ability of the Government of Haiti to mitigate and address climate change within the country has been severely compromised. Compounded by the devastating earthquake of January 12, 2010, where a majority of government infrastructure was destroyed and many of the public sector employees killed, these social and political issues have limited the government’s ability to respond, and exposed the people of Haiti to the persistent and destructive effects of climate change.
Climate change is one of the clearest manifestations of the complex links between the human and natural environment. While the impacts of climate change are undoubtedly negative for much of the world, a society’s capacity to adapt will play a critical role in determining what kind of impact those changes will ultimately have. For Haiti, a perfect storm of physical and socioeconomic factors has converged to heighten the country’s vulnerability to climate change: as the physical impacts of climate change continue to impact this already stressed country, a wide range of initiatives and partnerships will be required to strengthen the country’s resilience in a changing climate.
This blog is the first in a three part series analyzing the effects and future of climate change in Haiti. The second will focus on the differences between Haiti and its neighbor the Dominican Republic, and the third will focus on the critical partnerships to address climate change and vulnerability in Haiti.