Superstorm Sandy isn’t leaving the public eye any time soon. In my home state of New Jersey and along the coast of New York, people continue to live without homes and to rebuild what they lost. In a public forum, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg blamed climate change. The President, in his Inaugural Address, vowed to address climate change during this term. Climate change suddenly seems real, and very close to home.
What has dropped away from the American consciousness—or maybe it was never on our collective radar at all—was Sandy’s trajectory before she reached the U.S. As a tropical storm, and as a hurricane days earlier, Sandy bore down on Haiti, Cuba, and Jamaica. Across Haiti’s southern peninsula, my current home, she dumped 600-700 mm (27 inches) of rain in forty-eight hours, decimating fifty to seventy percent of agriculture, destroying homes, and killing more than fifty people. Over three months later, Haitian government officials and aid agencies are still helping local people rebuild homes, distribute seed and agricultural inputs, provide small jobs, repair water systems, and provide food aid. It’s a band-aid, not a cure.
It’s likely to get worse for the Caribbean. Climate scientists predict increased peak wind speeds and precipitation intensity for hurricanes in the Atlantic, and greater frequency of major hurricanes, due in large part to higher ocean temperatures. Haitians will readily believe this. They saw Hurricane Gordon in 1994 kill 1,000 people, and Georges in 1998 ruin eighty percent of harvests. Jeanne in 2004 killed more than 3,000 people and left a major town flooded for months. In 2008, four hurricanes—Fay, Gustav, Hannah, and Ike—hit Haiti in about a month, causing damage equivalent to fifteen percent of the country’s GDP, in addition to significant loss of life. Climatic trends are corroborated on the ground, as local data show a 1o Celsius increase in temperatures since 1973. Haitians also report more prolonged dry spells.
The challenge for relief and development actors like Catholic Relief Services (CRS), where I currently work, is to get beyond the cycle of storm relief, and enable people in Haiti to be more resilient to the threats of climate change. The solutions—like the problem itself—are complex and difficult.
The impacts of climate change are exacerbated in Haiti by other factors. Poverty, plus political instability, complicated land tenure policy, and a lack of government regulation, have driven poor rural farmers to cut trees for charcoal production, or to replace them with annual crops that offer less environmental protection. In the 1970s, twenty-five percent of Haiti was forested; today, less than two percent of Haiti has forest cover. Since trees slow water velocities down hillsides, increase soil infiltration, and help moderate temperatures for crops, deforestation leaves hillsides and communities with little protection from storms.
So, how can we help Haitians adapt to climate change? Local-level research is an important first step. CRS and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) are conducting a mapping study in Haiti that will propose changes in optimal growing altitudes for staple crops and high-value tree crops such as coffee, mango, and timber due to increased mean temperatures. This builds on a study led by CRS, CIAT, and the International Center for Maize and Wheat in Central America, which revealed the likelihood of $100 million in annual losses for the local population unless they improve soil and water management, diversify crops, and are supported by strong governance. This kind of local research will help us understand what risks small farmers may face in the coming years, and determine adaptation strategies as their livelihood options begin to change. This research needs to be shared with and understood by local people.
Understanding the drivers of people’s behaviors is also critical. While reforestation is an ideal solution, it is extremely difficult in Haiti. There are few “tree-huggers” here to maintain trees for conservation’s sake; people are more likely to plant and care for trees that have an economic value or that are grown alongside important food or cash crops. Most small farmers protect their soil and water to see a return on investment in the short-term, so adaptation strategies in Haiti must include economic incentives with both short- and long-term benefits. A new CRS pilot program, for example, will enable Haitian farmers to receive payments in exchange for trees planted. This is the kind of program we need more of: one that responds to people’s real behaviors, and has multiple wins—income generation, natural resource protection, and carbon sequestration.
As New Yorkers and New Jerseyans rebuild from the aftermath of Sandy, Haitians and the aid community work to rebuild Haiti and protect it from future climate-related shocks. For both regions, the road will be long, but thoughtful strategies can help communities adapt to climate change.