Overflowing Lake a Threat to Haiti

  • Posted on: 10 November 2008
  • By: Bryan Schaaf
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An interesting Miami Herald article circulated last week concerning Lake Azuei, the largest in the country and a source of livelihoods for many. The lake’s waters have been rising for two years as a result of clogged drainage canals and deforested mountains that are no longer capable of absorbing rainfall. If Haitian authorities do not demonstrate leadership in addressing the country’s environmental challenges, of which this is one, the end result will be yet more disrupted lives, livelihoods, and communities.  From Gonaives to Lake Azuei to the slums of Port au Prince full of Haitians from the countryside who have given up on agriculture, the need for better environmental management is clear.


Overflowing Lake a Threat to Haiti 

BY TRENTON DANIEL AND JACQUELINE CHARLES MALPASSE, Haiti -- The owners of an $18-a-night motel with a dancing floor closed up shop. Fishermen converted their boats into water taxis. Roadside food vendors abandoned coveted spots. For these workers whose livelihoods depend on Haiti's busiest and most profitable commercial corridor on the border with the Dominican Republic, it wasn't just bad enough that three weeks of deadly summer storms forced them to pack their goods and flee. Lake Azuei, Haiti's largest lake and a habitat for rare birds and marine life, busted its banks, flooding several towns.  


 'Before the storms, few people passed but business was good enough,'' Viliane Garriès, 40, said as she stirred a steaming pot of chicken bouillon near a customs building. ``Now even fewer people pass, and business is so slow.''  Problems caused by over-spilling lakes continue to plague Haiti months after deadly storms over the summer. In the South, the Miragoane Lake remains flooded, disrupting lives and commerce. In Malpasse, government workers successfully cut a temporary road through a nearby mountain two weeks ago and raised the road with gravel to stop flooding from the Azuei. But even with the resumption of traffic and trade, which generated $18 million in customs revenue last year, authorities acknowledge they have not solved the source of the problem: the lake's rising waters.


Those waters have been rising for at least two years, sparking calls by environmentalists and residents for urgent action. ''The government is very, very concerned about the lake,'' said Ludner Remarais, departmental director for the Ministry of Environment for the West region, home to Malpasse and the lake. Specialists and officials are studying, among other issues, water flow to and from the lake, which sits on a major earthquake fault line.  ''We are also studying the effect on the lake's biodiversity,'' Remarais said, ``because with the problem of sediment buildup in the lake for example, we are almost certain that the biodiversity of the lake is going to change.''


A deep blue oasis in an otherwise barren country, the 65-square-mile lake supports a rich habitat of American crocodiles and more than 100 species of plants and migratory birds, including flamingos. It is the lifeblood of the area's 60,000 people, many of whom fish in its waters. ''We have a problem of deforestation and diminishing tree cover. There is the problem of the quantity of water that Haiti has been receiving, which we attribute to climate change, a global phenomenon. There is also the problem of erosion,'' Remarais said. 


``If you look at the watersheds surrounding Lake Azuei, you will see that they are in a state of advanced environmental degradation.'' He said government officials have stepped up monitoring, including shutting down unregulated sand mining. They also set aside $2.2 million for cleaning canals. But while the problems at Lake Azuei illustrate the ongoing environmental challenges facing Haiti and the management of its wetlands, others argue that it's yet another example of neglect that has the country on the verge of an environmental catastrophe. 


United Nations officials say they repeatedly warned Haitian officials about the need to repair Lake Azuei, beginning with the declogging of two nearby canals that are supposed to stabilize the waters in Trou Caiman, a smaller freshwater lake. Trou Caiman is supposed to prevent excess water from 32 different rivers and streams from flowing into Azuei. 

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