Haiti's Cycle of Calamity

Photograph of Drew Kutschenreuter, an American agronomist working in Haiti. Photo by William Wheeler. Haiti, 2011.

Parched and dust-choked, Gonaives is the kind of town where Haiti's overlapping tragedies are on full display. In 2004 it was the site of an armed rebellion. And much of the devastation still stands from the floods of 2004 and 2008. Fortunately there was little 2010 earthquake damage in Gonaives. In August of 2010, as the peak of hurricane season approached, I encountered a pervasive sense of doom there.

One afternoon I sat in a small, air-conditioned cafeteria at the UN base, waiting to meet with Victor Jean, a civil protection official working on disaster preparedness. He was drinking beer and talking over a list of hundreds of cell phone numbers--a phone tree to be activated in case of a hurricane--with an American consultant.

The large flat-screen television on the wall was tuned to CNN, and a news brief mentioned that Tropical Storm Danielle was forming in the Atlantic. I asked the young man at a nearby table if the storm was expected to hit Haiti. He told me it was supposed to pass by. "Another missed Haiti last week," he said glumly. He's from a village nearby, he explained, where water is expensive, life is hard, and little aid has been distributed. Without schools and education, the village children will grow up to become criminals. "The end is coming," he said. "Jesus will return."

Things weren't always this bad. "In '84, it was gorgeous, " Jean told me, but after Jean-Claude Duvalier's era, the area was neglected. They lost forest rangers protecting the pockets of woodland that helped anchor the hillsides. The government's disaster response capacity is still low and the NGOs are unresponsive to local requests for latrines and more emergency shelters, he said. Yet people have adapted and know where to seek shelter in a church or with family higher up the mountain. Jean thinks the cell phone system is a step in the right direction. The goal is to get the body count from the next hurricane-induced flood down to zero.

"I think people are almost waiting for it, like we are going to get beaten down again," says Drew Kutschenreuter, an agronomist from Wisconsin who has been working in Haiti for more than 2 years. We stood on a hilltop overlooking the terraces and rows of peanuts his workers had stitched into the greener hillsides outside of town. He squatted to draw the country's coastline with a stick in the dirt, then sketched the path the 2008 hurricane took--a long line approaching the coast, then passing out to sea. People relaxed, he explained. Then it circled around in an impossible loop and parked right off the coast, dumping rain for days. He compared it to the shock of the second plane hitting the World Trade Center on September 11. "After the first tower was hit, everyone thought it was just an accident," he said. "Then it came back."

Here, as elsewhere around the countryside, I heard a lot of talk about "Miami rice" and the Creole pig, a reminder of the thin margin Haitians farmers live by and the reasons they are often suspicious of foreign interventions. American agronomist Elizabeth Sipple told me that charcoal production has become the new "Creole savings bank," a term that used to refer to the Creole pig--black, hardy creatures that thrived in the countryside and could be sold whenever cash was tight. Until, that is, U.S. health officials decided they were a swine flu threat, then killed and replaced them with pink American pigs that couldn't survive Haiti. (Another American worker said that some rural farmers won't even talk to her, "because the last time they saw an American, he killed their pigs.") Then there's the rice, a boon to heavily subsidized American agro-business, which killed food production in Haiti after Bill Clinton began exporting it there in the 90s. "It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. It was a mistake," Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in March of last year.

One of Kutschenreuter's Haitian employees, 26-year-old Fils-aime Clairmentine, told me she lost her home and a relative in the last two major floods. Her voice shook as she described how, just a few hours after the rains began, the house was filled with a muddy deluge. They had to pass children overhead in the chest-high waters to evacuate. After the second flood destroyed her home, she moved to Port-au-Prince to find work. A local pastor hired her to cook in a college dorm. The January 12, 2010 earthquake shook the house, killing two of the students there (one of the underlying tragedies of the earthquake, Kutschenreuter said, was that the concentration of universities in the capitol meant that many of the country's best students were among the dead). So she returned to her village, and now grows panicked whenever rain clouds form.

One of her colleagues made a grim joke to break the tension. "If you hear a hurricane coming and you see her," he said, "then run away."

Clairmentine's history is not that unique. The International Crisis Group has long warned that Haiti's ecological degradation is a "time bomb," which contributes to the rapid urbanization, and unrest, in Port au Prince. In the last 40 years, the city has grown from a population of less than 400,000 to around three million. Its dense shantytowns became violent, diseased, sewage-infested slums--a tinderbox that could be ignited by a change in grain prices (as happened in the 2008 food riots) or mobilized for political ends.

Fortunately the 2010 hurricane season passed without the impact many had feared. But the country's latest tragedy, which is also stoking the fires of civil unrest, is the South Asian strand of cholera that many Haitians blame Nepalese peacekeepers for introducing through a leaking septic tank beside the Artibonite River. The disease has spread quickly in the unsanitary camps crowded with the homeless, and in rural, mountainous areas where people take their water from the river or underground wells. At a cholera treatment center a few hours drive from the capital, a doctor from Partners In Health made an interesting connection. Whenever a waterborne disease like typhoid, or now cholera, becomes a threat, "we always ask people to boil water," he said. They boil water by burning trees, which brings more flooding and other disasters. Cholera had seemed a unique, immediate threat against which the long-term environmental impacts would be an afterthought. He disagreed. "It has been a similar situation for decades," he told me. "It's a cycle."

This post is part of a special National Geographic news series and initiative on global water issues.