STORM-RAVAGED HAITIAN CITY WAGING UPHILL BATTLE AGAINST NATURE
By NATHANIAL GRONEWOLD of Greenwire
Published: November 16, 2009
GONAIVES, Haiti -- More than once, Haiti's "Independence City" was nearly destroyed by nature, and it could happen again if the authorities don't finish construction on flood control systems in time.
Work on protections began after three hurricanes and a tropical storm pounded this historic coastal city of about 100,000 for more than four weeks last year, killing hundreds and leaving thousands homeless.
"It was quite impossible to imagine that life was possible here in Gonaives," said Vicky Delore Ndjeuga, a Cameroon native who now works for the United Nations here. "There were no roads, no drinking water, no communication, because all had been destroyed by the hurricanes."
In the storms' aftermath, the U.N. peacekeepers set up the largest disaster relief operation in the organization's history. Troops deployed to battle gang leaders found themselves instead wading in neck-deep floodwaters to rescue stranded children, even as flooding destroyed their own base. Schools were converted into triage centers, and aid workers were scrambling around the clock.
With a quiet 2009 hurricane season providing a breather, relief and reconstruction operations have made progress. Work is under way to ring all of Gonaives with walls to prevent erosion of its steep hillsides and a recurrence of flooding and mudslides. And rivers and canals are being widened and improved to divert water from populated areas.
But the work is far from finished, the money is running out and donors are losing interest. "They started unfortunately very late in trying to build a drainage system, to stabilize the watershed," said Abdoul Aziz Thioye, the United Nations' top regional official here. "And I'm not sure they have enough money to finish all they really want to do."
A lot must be done. Gonaives -- Haiti's sixth largest city -- wears a bull's-eye in a region where fierce storms are the norm. Some of the city is built below sea level in a bowl rimmed by mountains. And with hillsides stripped of trees by people taking wood for charcoal production and home heating, there is nothing to stop deadly torrents of stormwater and mud from pouring into the bowl.
Water and mud rushing off the hillsides and rising from the sea were deadly last year. Survivors were forced to beg for food and clothing and sleep on rooftops for days as the city was clogged with mud, making evacuations and relief deliveries difficult, if not impossible.
"It will take a lot of time," Thioye said, "for the affected population here in Gonaives to cope with this traumatic situation."
Amazingly, what happened last year was not unprecedented. In the summer of 2004, this historic city was nearly washed off the map by Hurricane Jeanne. Mudslides and flooding killed more than 2,800 people.
Then last year came Tropical Storm Fay and Hurricanes Gustav, Hanna and Ike.
Gonaives was a difficult place to live even before the storms. It is the city where Jean-Jacques Dessalines declared Haiti independent of France in 1804, creating the world's first majority black republic. Two hundred years later, instead of celebrating their bicentennial, Gonaives was coping with a natural disaster and the armed bandits who had assumed control in Hurricane Jeanne's aftermath.
The years between the storms were violent. Whereas gang warfare affected only pockets of the capital, Port-au-Prince, here it consumed the entire city. U.N. workers talk of encountering a few bodies in the streets each day as they went about delivering aid.
Peacekeepers have since brought most of the troublemakers to justice, and today security here is not a major issue. So attention is now focused squarely on rebuilding and improving the flood control systems. Life and commerce have returned and people feel free to walk the streets at night.
"Many political events started here in Gonaives, and in the past there was a lot of destruction," U.N. staffer Ndjeuga said. "For me, today it's wonderful. For me, it was not possible to imagine that we could have a town like this again."
Ndjeuga is the only civilian U.N. staffer left from that period -- all others requested reassignments after things settled down. Of the 100-odd aid organizations and nonprofits that rushed into Gonaives after the 2008 storms, only a dozen or so remain.
Helped on by a number of U.N. agencies, most notably the U.N. Development Programme and the International Labor Organization, the Haitian government is spearheading efforts to protect the city from periodic inundations. After proposals for relocating the city were rejected, the agencies began building better drainage ditches and retaining walls on hillsides and even widening a river.
Project overseers say the plan will work, but money is desperately needed to see it through. Many larger projects are not even halfway finished. The Haitians have made immense progress on another but still have a very long way to go.
Jean Wenog, a regional government official overseeing some work, points to one example in particular: a barren hillside north of the city where laborers have created terraced retaining walls. Workers used pickaxes and shovels to build reinforced barriers to slow floodwaters and channels to force water into the soil or toward streambeds.
Only dirt and stone have been used. There is no money for concrete, and its production would require workers to tear up the sandy hills even further. Heavy equipment is rejected because it takes away jobs.
"If they use machines and everything, you reduce the number of people busy working on the project," Wenog explains. "This is a manual project using human beings, using manpower, and using the opportunity to employ as many people as possible."
What is notable about the site, Wenog said, is that it survived the 2008 storms. Land directly below the site suffered no flooding, and locals who have taken notice are now moving there in droves, building Gonaives' newest suburb.
Wenog and his crew are working to repeat this success in 11 other sites. The two-year project has so far cost an estimated $4 million, with 2,400 residents employed and working in four rotations. Pay is $3.12 a day and its equivalent in food.
UNDP says that so far, 32 such sites were finished in 2008, creating 5,000 jobs. But even though these low-tech engineering projects can go up fast and have proven their worth, less than 2 percent of Gonaives' 700-square-kilometer watershed is now protected.
But additional funding may be needed to protect the retaining walls.
In some areas, thieves have carved sand from the walls to sell as construction material. Government officers say some of those they have caught destroying the work had earlier been hired to build it.
The culprits say they have no other options, as almost no jobs exist. Local U.N. officials roughly estimate unemployment at about 95 percent.
"We've asked the mayor to come and stop people [ripping it up], and the mayor says he doesn't have the means to maybe pay people to watch it, maybe pay security guards to come and protect the place," said Fred Saintile, a project manager with the Haitian government.
'REHABILITATING THE POPULATION'
Officials are desperate to keep the work going into next year, to cover as much of the surrounding region as possible before the 2010 hurricane season. But the United Nations cannot provide any guarantees that the money will be there to continue.
Meanwhile, the Haitian government has already spent millions of dollars on larger engineering projects that require the use of heavy machinery.
In a desperate but late bid to prepare for storms this year, the government sent crews back in April to more than double the width of the River Laquinte and build dikes on its edges. So far, they have covered 12 kilometers of the riverbed, hoping to increase the river's carrying capacity by a factor of eight.
Fourteen drainage canals are being dug in the city itself, one designed to run directly underneath the busiest street in town, a key roadway connecting Port-au-Prince with the country's fourth-largest city, Cap-Haitien. About $10 million has been spent so far, but much more needs to be done.
Officials say disorganization between regional and central government officials and a scramble for funds have created unnecessary delays, resulting in some of the most important projects starting just ahead of summer.
The urban drainage channels have been cleared of most of the mud, but some segments are still unfinished. The widening of the River Laquinte cannot be completed until a bridge spanning it is replaced, and most here do not think the government has the money to do so. Construction on the underground channel, one of the keystones of the effort, is still in its initial stages.
The state and local government continue to appeal for funds to hire more workers to build more retaining walls, to encompass much more than the 2 percent of the watershed covered now.
Neighboring Cuba recently dispatched two experts to help city authorities develop an evacuation plan with the aim of reducing future flood fatalities to zero.
Though they are not quite sure how they can protect the barriers from people intent on setting up more illegal sand quarries, maximizing employment by putting as many people to work as possible to protect the city can go a long way in the interim, project organizers say. The income it generates could also help Gonaives' economy, enhancing infrastructure over the long run and gradually making the city less prone to destruction.
"Don't forget," Wenog said, "the objective is to rehabilitate the environment by rehabilitating the population, the human beings."
Copyright 2009 E&E Publishing. All Rights Reserved.