5 Issues to Watch as Haiti Recovers from Isaac

On August 25, 2012, Haiti encountered its most serious natural disaster since the catastrophic 2010 earthquake. Tropical Storm Isaac lashed the island nation, causing at least 29 fatalities, around 5,000 evacuations, and flooding in post-earthquake tent cities. As Haiti recovers from Isaac with the assistance of the international community, here are five long-term environmental and humanitarian issues to watch.

5. A rise in waterborne diseases

MangrovePhoto: Wilen Bill, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Standing water in Haiti’s tropical mangrove environment may breed diseases including cholera.

An upsurge in water-borne illnesses is a strong possibility due to standing water and poor sanitation conditions. In the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, a severe outbreak of cholera claimed over 7,500 lives across Haiti. While the origins of the disease have been linked to UN Peacekeepers from Nepal, new research indicates a more complex, home-grown cholera strain was also awakened in the searing heat and post-earthquake environment.

As reported by Healthmap.org, during the Isaac recovery, “[I]f the multitudes of Haitians living in camps are left without access to a potable water source or means of purification, such as boiling or iodine tablets, Isaac could carry contaminated water to new locations and exasperate [sic] what is already a complex emergency.”

4. Food security

rice plantPhoto: US Department of Agriculture
Crops such as rice, corn, and beans have been impacted by recent drought in Haiti. Isaac’s impact on food security is unclear.

Prior to Isaac’s landfall, drought was already an issue worth monitoring in Haiti. Growth of corn, rice and beans was stunted by a drought that began in May. According to analysis from the US Agency for International Development’s Famine Early Warning System, in some regions, agricultural losses from the drought were as high as 40%.

This month, USAID stated: “[A]lmost the entire region of Northeast, many communities in the South, West, North West… will be in a precarious situation in August and September if the dryness continues.” It remains to be seen how beneficial Isaac’s copious rains will be in terms of improving Haiti’s long-term food security situation.

Yet there is another complicating factor: flooding and high winds also brought severe crop damage, further depleting essential resources.

3. Reforestation to mitigate floods and landslides

ReforestationPhoto: John Illingworth
The Lambi Fund of Haiti and local partners seek to plant one million trees in the coming years. Reforestation (seen generically in the image above) is a key to preventing flash floods and landslides.

Haiti’s tremendous issues with riverine flash flooding and severe landslides are largely due to deforestation caused by harvesting trees for charcoal. Without the trees to anchor and stabilize hill slopes, floods and landslides have become more frequent, and far more deadly.

According to research by Dr. Jeffery Masters of Weather Underground, Haiti retained 25% of its native forests in 1980 and survived a Category 3 hurricane with no fatalities. By 2004, this number had dwindled to only 1.4%, and as a result storms have become increasingly more dangerous. Local organizations such as the Lambi Fund of Haiti have been working on reforestation efforts, aiming to plant one million trees in the coming years.

As information about Isaac’s flood and landslide impact are analyzed, the need for – and progress of – reforestation efforts will be a vital part of the discussion.

2. Housing for earthquake migrants

Haiti tent cityPhoto: United Nations Development Programme
400,000 people remained in tent cities at the time of Isaac’s landfall in Haiti.

In the immediate aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, over 1,000,000 earthquake survivors lived in tent cities around the capital of Port-au-Prince. These extremely vulnerable populations have been tested by rainy seasons, a brush with Hurricane Tomas in 2010, and most recently, by Isaac.

At the time of Isaac’s landfall, over 400,000 people remained in the post-earthquake tent cities. Had Isaac packed strong hurricane-force winds, the impact on these displacement camps could have been devastating. Isaac will certainly be a catalyst in the discussion concerning long-term recovery efforts to help remaining earthquake survivors find safe, sanitary and long-term housing.

1. Disaster resilience since 2010

Relief VesselPhoto: Beverly & Pack
The USNS Comfort military hospital ship was deployed to Haiti in 2010. Isaac will be a key metric in determining how far Haiti has come in becoming more disaster resilient.

As the impact on Haiti is assessed, the aftermath of Hurricane Isaac will contribute valuable information on disaster response mechanisms, and how they have improved since the 2010 earthquake. Isaac will inform discussions on issues such as the effectiveness of evacuations from high risk areas, sheltering, and preparations for a new wave of cholera.

While issues will certainly be identified, success stories may also emerge in the realm of local reforestation efforts or public health preparedness. There is no doubt that Isaac will be an important metric to measure Haiti’s disaster resilience going forward.

[via Huffington Post, Reuters AlertNet, USAID/FEWSNET, Weather Underground, Lambi Fund of Haiti, CBS News, National Public Radio, Palm Beach Post]