Haitian storm deaths blamed on deforestation

Posted: 27 October 2004

Hurricane Jean has caused at least 1,500 deaths in the Caribbean island nation of Haiti, and more than 1,050 people are missing - yet only 11 are reported dead in the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti.

Trucks with food relief make their way to the flooded city of Gonaives, Haiti. Photo: World Food Programme
Trucks with food relief make their way to the flooded city of Gonaives, Haiti. Photo: World Food Programme
Trucks with food relief make their way to the flooded city of Gonaives, Haiti.© World Food Programme
The rains in Haiti were less strong than the ones that struck the Dominican Republic, but nevertheless the loss in lives and livelihoods was much higher in Haiti than in the rest of the Caribbean. In May, torrential rains killed 2,665 Haitians.

Extensive deforestation

Part of Haiti's terrible problem is environmental according to Salvano Briceño, director of International Secretariat of Disaster Reduction, the United Nations Secretariat in Geneva that focuses on reducing the effects natural disasters. "Vulnerabilities have been allowed to grow in Haiti to the extent that any natural hazard inevitably leads to great tragedy," he said. "And yet, thinking ahead and investing in prevention will save lives and livelihoods."

Rapid urbanization, lack of land management, and deforestation for charcoal production, make Haitian people highly vulnerable to mudslides. Since 60 per cent of the Haitian people heavily on charcoal for cooking, deforestation has been extensive.

In the Dominican Republic, on the other hand, people depend entirely on natural gas to cook.

Early warning problem

Deforestation is not the only problem: the lack of early warning capacity is another. A survey conducted in July 2003 for the Second International Conference on Early Warning in Bonn, Germany, found many early warning systems in the Caribbean - but none in Haiti.

Without early warning and preparedness, people are caught unawares. And the worst is not over yet. Another eight tropical storms are expected to hit the region over the coming weeks.

For a poor country like Haiti, disaster early warning and preparedness systems are not a top priority when the sun is shining, but they are essential for saving lives when it rains. Effective and low cost systems could be put in place easily with the help of the international community.

"Haiti has limited capacity to finance disaster preparedness and response itself. The international community should work with the Haitian government and invest in long-term measures rather than only producing funds for relief after disaster has hit," said Briceño.

In the nearby Dominican Republic, for example, the Government and Civil Defence have instituted a National Commission of Emergencies.

"Thanks to the European Union and the United States, we have a good alert system", said Louis Luna Paulino, director of Civil Defence and of the National Commission of Emergencies in the Dominican Republic. "When there is an alert, people go to shelters and everybody is warned by radio and television."

In Haiti, it has been a different story. The water washed away entire homes and belongings. Many people don't even have the means to cook," said Guy Gauvreau, World Food Programme (WFP) Haiti Country Director.

WFP provides food to more than 500,000 people in Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere.

"At this point we think at least 175,000 people are affected across the country. Many of them were already very vulnerable and now, they have lost their homes, their entire crops, their animals and the few belongings they had," said Gauvreau.

"They are completely dependent on WFP and other humanitarian actors for help," said Gauvreau. "It is a huge disaster."

The United Nations World Conference on Disaster Reduction that will take place in Kobe, Hyogo, Japan from January 18 to 22, 2005 will be an opportunity to make a clear and strong point that the reduction of vulnerability has to be an explicit objective of developing planning.

Source: © Environment News Service (ENS) 2004. All Rights Reserved.