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Environmental Regeneration in Haiti: the Water Problem

Most people are familiar with the overwhelming problems faced by the people of Haiti after the earthquake in January.  Images of the destroyed city of Port au Prince give a sense of the work that will be needed to rebuild that society.

It isn’t only the people in the city who are struggling, and not all the work is a matter of reconstructing fallen infrastructure.  The rural areas have very little infrastructure to begin with, and the basic sustainability of the natural environment is in question.

Columbia Water Center research scientist Lior Asaf is working in Haiti to understand the existing environmental conditions, and look for ways to improve people’s lives for the long term.  He is working with an Earth Institute, Center for International Earth Science Network (CIESN), program called the Haiti Regeneration Project, which also involves the United Nations Environment Programme and Hatian partners.

This watershed management project will take a long-term approach, 20 years in fact, to find sustainable solutions to the problems faced by rural Hatians, and is made up of an interdisciplinary team working in reforestation, agro-forestry, sustainable energy, and flood risk management. One part of the project focuses on the Port Piment watershed basin on the southwestern end of the island.  The main town of Port a Piment is a seven hour drive from Port au Prince, and is the only part of the area with road access.

Port Piment Watershed Basin with rivers, villages and monitoring stations.

Asaf, who traveled to Haiti for ten days in April, says, “I work in the hydrology area, to determine climatic abilities as well as monitoring the water situation, like flood protection, soil erosion. We did a survey of the entire water shed, measurement of water quality and stream discharge, and established a monitoring network,including rain gauges in 4 locations in the watershed, three of them in quite remote locations.  The one in Port a Piment itself actually transfers data to a satellite.”

Lior Asaf (center) installed precipitation monitoring stations with the help of local residents such as these in the village of Cavalier.

He found a very serious situation.  “There is severe soil erosion.  The river is actually expanding in the floodplain.  You have houses and agricultural areas that are near the embankments of the river, and now they are losing the land in places.  People who live by the river are very concerned. They told us that in the last 10 years it has been losing 5 to 10 meters every year.”

House near Randelle, looking at the full erosion of the stream banks affecting the stability of the house.
House near Randelle, looking at the full erosion of the stream banks affecting the stability of the house.

The soil erosion on the floodplain is so extensive, he says, “Because they’ve cut most of the vegetation. There’s nothing to hold the water.  There’s no trees, no vegetation.  When you have more severe storms, there’s more discharge and you have more erosion by the rivers.”

Typical mountain agriculture without soil conservation.
Typical mountain agriculture and resulting soil degradation.

“There is no soil conservation practice.  Everywhere people work the land.  There’s almost no area that is not under cultivation.”

“It’s very typical agriculture, done by hand.  There’s no heavy machinery.  No tractors or even mules.  The agriculture is done by hand with very simple tools.”
“It’s very typical agriculture, done by hand with very simple tools. There’s no heavy machinery. No tractors or even mules.”

“You can see gullies starting.  Once it starts, it never stops.  You can see how the land is actually washed away.  For the long term, they’re just going to be losing more and more soil.


“This is not sustainable agriculture.  Their crop yields are going down, they’re losing soil fertility.  This is not just where we are working, this is the entire country.  There’s now no tree cover, in comparison with the Dominican Republic, where there is still 30% treecover left.

“Another issue is access to safe water.  Each family in the village gets their water mainly either at streams or springs.  There’s no protection for the springs.  They just come and get water with jerry cans.  Most of the water that I tested was contaminated.”

Household water sources don't have any protection from contaminants.
Household water sources don't have any protection from contaminants.

In Port a Piment, he says, “We’re installing the satellite linked station.  It doesn’t measure just rain. It records wind velocity, wind direction, rain intensity and accumulation, humidity, soil temperature.  It’s all transmitted directly to the satellite, and you don’t have to go back to collect the data.

Satellite linked monitor in Port a Piment
Lior Asaf (left) and CWC Intern Jennifer Vettel (second from left) were part of the team that installed the satellite-linked monitor in Port a Piment.

Asaf will be travelling back to Haiti in July to continue the study and retrieve data from the tiny computers attached to the inland monitoring stations.

The Haiti Regeneration Project is undergoing a reorientation process following the earthquake, and the web site is under development.


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David Canady
David Canady
14 years ago

Hello Mr. Asaf: We are looking to provide a proposal to a few foundations on suppling water to Haiti. We have a process that is all natural with no chemical runoff and is a more economical unit to run than most plants. We are plannnimg a portable water plant with water supplied by drilling a well and treating and distributing to a general area for people to fill containers, etc. Our system can treat a large variety of heavy metals found in the ground.

Please give me a call and I would like to speak with you on some of these possibilities and realities. My number is 302-981-2897 and the website will come later.

Paul Fitzpatrick
13 years ago

Hi Mr Asaf, I writing to you in relation to the wind data you are getting in the southern part of the island. We have just installed our wind turbine this being 11kw and about to start a roll out in Haiti on a number of projects and would be interested to hear from you on any wind data you have in the region. Best Regards, Paul

Gordon K
Gordon K
12 years ago

Mr. Asaf: I see evidence of your travail at this website. Having been in and out of Haiti since 1964 I assure you that the water problem has been more than evident to me. Around the entire country there is a need for alternative methods of cultivation for the retention of soil and flora. Please contact me via email at your leisure. I will hopefully be in Coteaux and P-a-P later this Spring.