Quake Disrupted Haiti Environmental Efforts

It was Alex Fischer's fifth trip to Haiti in the past two years, and he finally felt like progress was being made. The team of Columbia University researchers of which he was a part had set out in 2009 to solve two of the country's most intractable problems: poverty and vulnerability to natural disasters. The key to both, they believed, would be restoring the country's degraded environment. The first phase of the program—known as the Haiti Regeneration Initiative—had been dedicated to enlisting local officials and developing the technical capacity necessary for large-scale research. With that work nearly complete, the group was about to launch their first big project: restoring a watershed in the southwest region of the country.

At 5 p.m. on Jan. 12, Fischer and his colleague Marc Levy were in the United Nations Development Program's compound—a grand old series of buildings in Petion Ville, an affluent suburb in the hills just east of Port-au-Prince. As they hammered out the final details of their project, the room started to tremble violently. "I dove to the ground to control my movement and then crawled out of the building," says Levy. "The shaking seemed to go on forever, but they say it only lasted 60 seconds." Fischer and Levy would spend the next 24 hours searching for colleagues and helping the shocked and wounded around them. The next day they would be evacuated to a base near the airport. By week's end they would be back home in New York.

Since the earthquake decimated Haiti's capital city, much has been said about the country's dire poverty. But Haiti is not only the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere; it's also the most environmentally degraded. Less than 1 percent of its original forest cover remains, and 6 percent of the land has virtually no soil left. Both are due to a vicious cycle of overpopulation, poverty, and natural disasters. Each increases susceptibility to the other and as time wears on, it's evident that to be effective, all problems must be attacked at once. For what some say was the first time, scientists were trying to do just that—Levy and Fischer's work was among the first steps toward a more integrated development program addressing both economic and environmental concerns. Now that work has been put on hold.

With 65 percent of the population directly dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods, it's no surprise that the ecology and economy of Haiti are so intimately linked. But until recently, experts say the two have been treated as separate and hierarchical problems, with economic development typically ranking above environmental restoration. "The history of development in Haiti was a project here, a project there, and nothing adds up," says Levy, deputy director of Columbia's Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN). His team decided to focus on Haiti's watersheds, discrete chunks of land supported by a common water source, from a more holistic perspective. "Our idea had been to tackle one watershed at a time, not as an isolated project but from an ecosystem perspective." That ecosystem includes the natural environment, the people living in it, and the social and political context of their lives.

For example, 75 percent of the country's energy demands are met with firewood and charcoal. It's the cheapest possible energy source, but it requires the felling of trees, which in turn erodes the soil. As the soil becomes depleted, crop yields shrink, water tables become polluted with sediment, and the land becomes more vulnerable to flooding. In a mountainous region with no tree cover, severe floods can wash out entire communities—houses, crops, and humans—transforming fragile towns and cities from impoverished to destitute. Breaking the cycle requires multiple, simultaneous interventions: not only a better fuel source but also farming practices that can replenish the soil, a plan to clean up the water and reforest the land, and a local populace invested in the process.

Levy, Fischer, and others meant to coordinate all such efforts, but even before the quake struck, the odds were stacked against them. Haiti's population is projected to grow by 20 percent in the next decade—a prediction the earthquake has not changed. More bellies to fill means more land will have to be cleared for farming. That means more erosion. And as the planet warms, natural disasters will likely become more frequent and severe.

Eventually, Levy and Fischer planned to scale up their efforts, from one watershed to many across the country. But for now, priorities have shifted. In April, the rains will come and by June, those rains will give way to full-blown hurricanes. Because the earthquake and its aftershocks have disturbed soils and hillsides, scientists say storms will almost certainly bring colossal landslides, and that will mean more destruction and loss of life.

At Columbia University and elsewhere, scientists previously focused on projects like the Regeneration Initiative are now focused on pinpointing the places most vulnerable to landslides so that, just maybe, the next wave of devastation can be minimized. "All too often people rebuild with a desire to protect against the hazard they just suffered, but you can't just respond to the last disaster," says Fischer. "In a place like Haiti where you have a confluence of factors—from plate boundaries and mountains, to a tropical climate—it could be an earthquake one day and a flood the next and then a landslide after that."

Levy and Fischer say that once the rainy season passes and the Haitians begin the overwhelming task of rebuilding their country, the research team will return to their original work. But before they can do anything as ambitious as restoring watersheds, they may have to restore something even more fundamental. "When I visited Haiti this past summer, everyone was just so optimistic," says Levy. "Our own project was part of this much bigger wave—the international community was finally focusing on Haiti and there was a real sense of hope." Though the international support is now greater than ever, the sense of hope in the local population has suffered a serious blow—and with it, the prospect of a safer, more prosperous home.