Spotlight On: Haiti’s Drought

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Like most of its fellow Caribbean island-colonies, Haiti was established as a plantation state soon after its “discovery” in 1492. By the early 1700s, it became apparent that Haiti’s mountains and hillsides were ideal for the cultivation of Arabica coffee trees, and Haiti eventually became a major global producer and exporter of coffee. Long after its independence in 1803, sugar and coffee continued to dominate the Haitian economy. In the early 1980s, production of both peaked, before beginning a rapid, largely ongoing decline. 

Inefficiency in Haiti’s production of cash crops, especially sugar, made it difficult for the country to compete. At the same time, erratic global prices, bad policies, and political turmoil—including oppressive dictatorships and a popular revolution—were also major blows to the two industries. Today, Haiti continues to produce sugar and coffee, but exports no sugar and only about $1 million worth of coffee.  The overwhelming majority of production for both products, therefore, is consumed domestically. Today, mangoes are the most significant food export, yet earnings from them rarely exceed $15 million.  Haiti also exports some cocoa, but generally less than $10 million per year.  

Uncertainty around cash crop markets encouraged farmers to switch to growing food crops—and so following the collapse of Haitian sugar and coffee, production of several of Haiti’s staple foods actually increased. 

Agriculture, which according to estimates employs at least half of Haiti’s population, is now dominated by staples like potatoes, cassava, rice, beans, sweet potatoes, and sorghum. Haitian rice farmers have long complained that the United States is unfairly flooding their market with cheap subsidized rice, making it difficult for them to compete.  The nature of the competitive environment combined with the comparative water-intensiveness of rice cultivation, has likely helped boost production of the other, hardier staple food crops.

While food production has increased in absolute terms since the 1980s, such increases haven’t quite been enough. In 1985, Haiti’s population was about 6.4 million —in the 30 years since then, the country’s population has swelled by about 65 percent. Compared to that staggering level of growth, the increases in food production have been modest — hence why Haiti relies heavily on imports, especially from the US, for the bulk of its food. Much of the imports are rice—on which it spends upwards of $200 million each year—followed by wheat, which runs a bill of around $50 million each year. 

The current drought

In January 2010, Haiti experienced the worst natural disaster in its history with a 7.0  magnitude earthquake that resulted in a staggering loss of life: conservative death toll estimates are about 100,000, while the highest estimates are in excess of 300,000.   Relatively soon after, in 2012, precipitation during Haiti’s rainy seasons was below-average, and for the next three years, continued to be inadequate. 

Drought conditions worsened in 2015, and since the middle of last year, international aid agencies have been warning about the potential human impact of the drought, while Haitian officials have indicated that it may be the most severe their country has experienced in 35 years.  According to Haiti’s National Food Security Coordination (CNSA),  food production between July and December 2015 fell by 50 percent.

Much of the island is experiencing drought conditions: UN reports point to Sud-Est, Sud, Nord-Oest, and (northern) Artibonite, four of Haiti’s ten regions (“departments”), as being particularly affected. Most Haitian rice is grown in the Artibonite region in the middle of the country: 2012 figures peg Artibonite rice production as 80 percent of the country’s total.   But agriculture on smaller, sometimes subsistence scales, occurs in virtually every other area of Haiti, meaning that widespread drought has widespread effects.

Haiti gets the bulk of its rains in the summer months, between May and August. Planting of some staples, like corn, beans, and rainy season rice (as opposed to dry season rice) happens during or immediately after these rains, while the success of year-round crops like sweet potatoes, mangoes, and vegetables  also depends to an extent on these rains.  

The Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) is just one of the many tools that can be used to evaluate how cropland and vegetation respond to drought. By focusing in on late September, a time that is typically one of near peak-greenness, and looking at how different the level of greenness is compared to the 10-year average, it’s possible to gain a better understanding of the situation. The anomaly visualization below indicates that much of Haiti was below the level of greenness expected for the time. 

Although the image, as well as on-the-ground reports, indicate that the situation in Artibonite, Haiti’s “rice-basket” is not as bad as the situation in other parts of the country, as mentioned earlier, understanding the prevalence of small-scale agriculture in Haiti is important in understanding the effects of drought. 

In December, several parts of Haiti, including the Oest region, experienced average to above average rainfall, although deficits persisted in Artibonite.  In February, there has been heavy rainfall in the Grand-Anse department in the far southwest of the country,   as well as heavy precipitation in the north that has led to significant flooding. 

Nonetheless, forecasts suggest that the warm and dry conditions will persist in Haiti through May 2016. 

Haiti’s climate future 

The intensification of the Haitian drought this year has been widely reported as being driven by El Niño. An El Niño event does not guarantee a drought in Haiti, but at least some research does indicate that it can lead to a reduction in rainfall, delay the start of the summer cyclone rains, and encourage drought conditions.  Indeed, this year’s drought is widely cited as being the country’s worst since 1986, another El Niño year.

Many experts expect climate change to have an impact on El Niño events, and predict an increase in their frequency and severity—which may not bode well for Haiti. 

Climate change is also expected to lead to more erratic temperatures in the country. According to Haiti’s Ministry for Agriculture and the NGO Groupe URD,   Haiti may already be experiencing higher temperatures: their data indicates an increase in average atmospheric temperatures of 1°C in the period between 1973 and 2003.  Higher temperatures will make it only more difficult for Haiti to cultivate certain temperature-sensitive crops, like Arabica coffee, while also potentially encouraging a variety of crop pests. Haiti’s rainfall is also anticipated to become more variable, which could increase the likelihood of not only droughts, but floods as well. 

Hurricanes, already a major challenge for the Caribbean country, may not be immune to the effects of climate change either. It’s not yet clear as to how their frequency may change, but evidence from several researchers, including those at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory  suggests that the storms could grow more intense. 

Finally, rising sea levels present obvious problems for Haiti, given its numerous coastal settlements. From an agricultural perspective, such a rise could create saltier soils and make it difficult for crops to grow. 

Haiti’s vulnerability in the face of climate change led environmental risk analytics firm Maplecroft to name Haiti as one of the countries most susceptible to the effects of climate change in a 2012 report.  Furthermore, the NGO, Germanwatch, in its 2016 Global Climate Risk Index, listed Haiti as one of the top three countries most affected by climate change.  

Still, the specific emphasis on Haiti begs the question as to why the country is expected to fare so much worse than its neighbors. The Dominican Republic, for example, which makes up the other two-thirds of the island mass Haiti inhabits, should in theory be facing the same risk as Haiti. 

There are some obvious reasons for singling out Haiti: political instability and ineffective policymaking persist (there’s currently an interim president in place, after the election 

was delayed for a third time in January), while the country’s relative poverty not only makes it difficult for its government to create effective policies, but also makes its citizens particularly vulnerable. 

The toll of deforestation 

Another central factor explaining Haiti’s climate vulnerability is the extent of deforestation in the country. Of course, deforestation occurs all over the world, and Caribbean and Latin American countries especially have long struggled with its effects. 

Researchers agree that there has been significant deforestation in Haiti, but there still seems to be at least some uncertainty regarding its precise extent: estimates of the amount of remaining forest cover in the country range from less than 1 percent to greater than 25 percent.  However,  most estimates fall in the lower end of that spectrum - less than 5 percent. 

The ongoing deforestation is largely driven by poverty, as Haitians cannot afford to use non-wood based fuel sources. 2012 figures from the Worldwatch Institute estimated that about 95 percent of Haitians use charcoal and fuelwood for cooking and that those two sources account for 71 percent of the country’s overall energy consumption.  

And in a cruel catch-22, deforestation also deepens poverty and vulnerability, as it can magnify the effects of natural disasters. Without trees, earthquakes can more easily trigger landslides, hurricanes can quickly result in mudslides, excessive rainfall can lead to flooding and the lack of moisture in the air can amplify the effects of drought. 

Agriculture specifically stands to benefit from reforestation, too. An increase in the number of trees can help reduce soil erosion, combat desertification, reduce the risk of crop flooding, and also protect aquatic life from harmful sediment deposits. 

Fortunately, Haitian policymakers and a range of NGOs have been prioritizing reforestation efforts over the past several years, and the US government even passed the Haiti Reforestation Act in 2011 which is designed to support such efforts in the country.  Reforestation is one of the most effective measures Haiti can take right now in order to mitigate the anticipated effects of climate change. 

A coffee revival

While it may not be realistic, nor prudent to expect a resurgence of Haitian sugar, given that it is a water- and land-intensive product with erratic global prices, a resurgence of Haitian coffee could happen. Haiti already has a history of producing Arabica, demand of which is expected to continue to climb, and a growth in coffee production can be compatible with reforestation efforts, given that coffee trees thrive when grown alongside large, shady trees. 

In the years ahead, reforestation will have to continue to be a priority for Haiti, and it can happen in conjunction with agricultural growth, not at the expense of it. At the same time, the government should focus on improving the quality of information and data. The lack of reliable information—whether on the human toll of natural disasters or the extent of deforestation—makes it extremely difficult to make good policies or create effective interventions.  

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