CLIMATE CHANGE JUST ONE WORRY IN STRUGGLING HAITI
(Reuters Alertnet) - By Robert Shaw
PORT AU PRINCE – A month before a massive earthquake derailed pretty much everything in Haiti, the government set up a climate change division within its environment ministry, building on a “National Adaptation Plan of Action” (NAPA) the government announced in 2006.
But in the aftermath of the devastation, climate change has been all but forgotten in Haiti as the country struggles to deal with pressing rebuilding priorities.
“We have seen very little concrete action in terms of climate change,” admits Jean Pierre Moise, Haiti’s climate chief.
Still, promises by rich nations to provide $100 billion a year in funding by 2020 to help vulnerable countries deal with climate change may present opportunities for Haiti to address its problems and vulnerabilities, particularly if it can overcome longstanding political paralysis, experts say.
“Over the last number of years it is true that there has been a void of leadership in Haiti, and with no budget, no authority and no capacity, very little can be achieved,” said Ross Gartley, a disaster risk specialist at the World Bank.
But Haiti now has a “unique opportunity to position itself to get big financing further down the line … and to build solid capacity,” he said.
Many Haitians live in urban areas that are vulnerable to landslides and floods, a point not lost on the Ministry of the Environment. About a year before the devastating January 2010 earthquake, which claimed more than 50,000 lives, the ministry appointed 26 Haitian artists, actors, comedians and journalists as environment and disaster risk reduction ambassadors.
Haitian mayors are also beginning to understand the need to act on climate concerns, international experts say.
"We have already begun work with the mayor of Port-au-Prince, Muscadin Jean-Yves Jason, to bring together local leaders from around the country and the world in raising political commitment to disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation,” said Ricardo Mena, head of the Americas office of the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction.
But action is still far off. At Pic Macaya, in Haiti’s remote southern mountains, researchers in October rediscovered six rare frogs and other amphibians not seen in nearly two decades in a much-abused national park. The region where the animals live has been all but denuded of trees by illegal loggers and charcoal harvesters.
The loss of trees leaves land more erosion prone, less stable and less able to absorb rainwater, raising the risks of landslides, flooding and drought, experts say.
Joseph Serisier, a journalist and lawyer in the city of Les Cayes, about 25 miles from the national park, said that the region’s forests have dwindled over the last 30 years.
Now, “there are major water shortages in the city during the dry season,” he said.
Massive damage from the earthquake also has led to a surge in forest cutting to provide materials for reconstruction of homes, according to Andrew Morton, Haiti programme manager for the U.N. Environmental Programme.
"The demand for timber poles for tents and construction is accelerating the rate of deforestation and this is one impact which will be very difficult to mitigate," Morton said.
Some disaster risk experts in the region say the amount of international money available to deal with climate-related problems in Haiti and the Caribbean region likely will fall far short of the region’s needs.
“The simple fact is that the international community, together with the Haitian government, continue to talk about tens of millions of dollars, when in reality we are talking about an issue that is at least in the range of one billion dollars,” said Simon Young, who works with the Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility, an innovative regional insurance pool that helps countries find affordable hurricane and earthquake insurance.
Scientists with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007 predicted that hurricanes in the future may become more intense, with faster wind speeds and more heavy rain. That is a significant worry for Haiti and other Caribbean islands that regularly deal with hurricane threats.
But in its 2006 climate change adaptation plan, Haiti identified just $24 million in projects it hoped to carry out, focused on vulnerable coastal zones, reforestation and drainage basins.
Both Haiti’s leaders and the international community share the blame for the island’s lack of preparation to deal with climate change impacts, international experts say.
Oxfam International, in a report last month, said Haiti needed to show greater strategic leadership but the international community also needed to do more.
‘‘What Haiti needs is a comprehensive strategy, complete with short, medium, and long-term actions, measures and indicators,” said Yolette Etienne, Oxfam’s Haiti director. “In turn, this strategy must be supported financially by the international community, preferably with the most polluting nations providing more support.”
There are a few signs of progress. Last month, the U.N. Environmental Programme (UNEP) announced a 20-year, $200 million recovery plan for southern Haiti’s degraded landscape, supported in part by funding from the government of Norway, Catholic Relief Services and the Green Family Foundation, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization that works on health and poverty alleviation issues.
The project aims to better manage water drainage basins in the region and assist small farmers and fishermen, said Antonio Perera, UNEP’s local coordinator.
The country also is hopes to receive funding aimed at climate-related projects – particularly disaster risk reduction and sustainable development - through the international Haiti Reconstruction Fund and the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, co-chaired by former U.S. President Bill Clinton and Jean-Max Bellerive, Haiti’s outgoing prime minister.
Making the projects work will require the input of local communities “who understand the real needs at stake,” said Gartley of the World Bank.
Robert Shaw is a freelance writer who works regularly in Haiti. This story is part of a series supported by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network.