UNITED NATIONS -- One week ago, Haiti's biggest fears were hurricanes and food shortage.
But authorities were preparing for them. With law and order restored by international peacekeepers, thousands of Haitians were put to work building flood protections and establishing urban gardens. Experimental efforts to reforest hillsides denuded by the poor seeking wood for charcoal were gaining momentum. And U.N. officials were cautiously optimistic their Haitian enterprise could rank among their most successful.
But it all crashed down in the devastating earthquake last Tuesday.
Work on restoring Haitian forests has been suspended, perhaps indefinitely. Water supplies throughout the nation will have to be reassessed, and funding for food production and storm protection is now threatened as international attention is turned to meeting Haiti's desperate emergency needs.
"We are not operational. We are still looking for missing staff, and the Port-au-Prince office is not open," said Ari Toubo Ibrahim, head of Haiti operations at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
FAO had 23 programs for growing food in the region most affected by the earthquake, including areas in and around the capital, Port-au-Prince, and the cities of Jacmel and Leogane. All 23 will now have to be relaunched, he said. Those farther afield will all have to be reassessed, as well, since Haiti's Ministry of Agriculture, FAO's main partner, has effectively been destroyed.
"We have to start helping the urban and peri-urban populations immediately to relaunch vegetable production," Ibrahim said. "There is no use waiting. That is what needs to happen now."
Ibrahim himself is lucky to be alive. He and many of his staff members were in one of the few buildings that withstood the 7.0 tremor as other structures collapsed. Still, about half of FAO employees in Haiti are still unaccounted for.
Alexander Fischer, a researcher at Columbia University's Center for International Earth Science Information Network, is also a lucky survivor. He and his team were in Haiti planning for the forest revival when the quake hit. Ninety-eight percent of Haiti's tree cover has been lost to illegal logging and charcoal manufacturing, and deforestation is the chief culprit behind the deadly flash floods that routinely follow even normal rainstorms.
Fischer confirms what others have been saying since the quake. Earthquakes were simply not on the radar screen in Haiti. Since 2004, more than 3,000 Haitians have been killed by hurricanes. Prior to last week's catastrophe, storms and political violence were responsible for far more death and destruction than tectonic forces, and that's where the attention of U.N. and Haitian authorities was focused.
"I think that it had been raised as a concern, but it wasn't at the top list of priorities that I saw," said Fischer, who is now safely back in New York. "When a country is facing such dire needs on a daily basis, there's such little time for planning for basic needs, let alone thinking about 100-year risks."
No one knows yet how many people were killed in the earthquake. Estimates have been put as high as 200,000, and there have been news accounts of government officials saying tens of thousands of bodies have been put into mass graves. Almost all government infrastructure in Port-au-Prince lies either destroyed or severely damaged.
Fischer, Ibrahim and other survivors describe chaos in the quake's aftermath: bodies lying in streets, workers with no medical training bandaging wounds in makeshift triage centers, and nights spent sleeping outdoors and half-awake as powerful aftershocks continued.
Haiti's government was already receiving about $300 million in annual foreign aid to provide services. And last week, humanitarian agencies launched a broad appeal for $575 million needed to respond to the emergency. Requests for more funds can be expected, but pledges are pouring in, including $100 million promised by the U.S. government.
And the United Nations, on the ground in Haiti since 2004, is ill-equipped to fill the void. The United Nations has suffered its worst tragedy in its 64-year history in Haiti, with officials confirming the deaths of more than 80 of its staff, with almost 100 still unaccounted for. Though plans were in the works to scale back operations there, top U.N. officials are now requesting 3,500 more peacekeeping troops and police.
Fischer said he would like to continue his environmental restoration work, which he sees as essential to combating poverty and instability. With what was planned as a 20-year effort to restore Haitian forests stalled, Fischer and his Columbia University team have no idea when they will be able to pick up, if ever.
"What's tragic is that you're looking at a country that has already critical-stage concerns about environmental stability and human welfare, and the only ability to help it has been cut off," he said.
He added, "The government is now in crumbles."
Long-term agriculture problems
Officials report that food supplies in Port-au-Prince are rapidly running out. Food aid is flooding into the airport, but more will be needed for months to come. The quake hit Haiti between harvests; summer stores have almost run out, and winter crops haven't been pulled from the ground yet.
Of $575 million requested by relief agencies, much of the cash, $246 million, is earmarked for food aid, while $23 million is sought for agriculture. The assistance is desperately needed now. but experts warn that in the long run, increased dependence on outside assistance for food could hurt Haiti's poor rural farmers by taking markets away from them.
Groundwater supplies throughout Haiti will also require a second look, said Cliff Treyens, an official at the National Ground Water Association (NGWA). Not only will wells and other water infrastructure need to be checked for damage, but Haiti's entire water table could have been permanently altered.
Earthquakes "can play havoc with the groundwater levels ... even many hundreds of miles away," he explained. "An earthquake that happened in Alaska caused a 5-foot drop in the water level in Ohio wells."
As Haiti's largest city, Port-au-Prince was the keystone in Haiti's already fragile economy. The majority of the nation's population subsists on less than $2 a day, much of that gotten from selling food and other essentials to the capital.
Gonaives, a city to the north that was nearly destroyed by a succession of hurricanes and tropical storms in 2008, survives by remittances from Haitians working abroad and by its links to Port-au-Prince. Now progress there and elsewhere in the countryside is on hold as all energy is diverted to 3 million Haitians in the earthquake-ravaged capital region.
"Now the [Gonaives] region is receiving a lot of people -- including those with injuries looking for medical support, shelters and food," said Abdoul Aziz Thioye, regional chief of U.N. operations in Artibonite, Haiti's principal agricultural area.
Click here to read a December 2009 special report on Haiti's environmental and economic challenges.
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