Deforestation in Haiti Adds to Post-Earthquake Landslide Concerns

by John J. Berger, Ph.D and Lani Maher

Haiti, the most impoverished country in the Western Hemisphere, finally captured international attention following a devastating 7.0 earthquake that struck the country on January 12th. The quake killed an estimated 230,000 Haitians and left over a million homeless. International relief organizations are currently working to help Haitian refugees and start rebuilding all that was destroyed.

It is unfortunate, however, that such a catastrophe was necessary to bring Haiti’s ongoing struggles into the public eye. Prior to the earthquake, Haiti already faced extreme poverty and environmental degradation, which severely exacerbated the earthquake’s impact on the Haitian people.

Homeless Haitians set up tents nearby the Presidential Palace, in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti Earthquake. Marcello Casal Jr, Agência Brasil.

According to NASA, Haiti has one of the worst cases of deforestation in the world, with only about 2% green cover, in contrast to the Dominican Republic, which borders Haiti and has about 28% green cover. Measurements of green cover indicate the proportion of a country’s total terrestrial area that is covered by vegetation, as opposed to soil, sand, or concrete. The lack of trees in Haiti has been very detrimental to the environment and to the Haitian population that depends on them. Five hundred years ago, the island of Hispaniola, where Haiti and the Dominican republic are now situated, was densely forested, but centuries of logging and poor farming practices have removed most of the trees and soil nutrients. Still, Haitians are continuing to scavenge the last forest remnants for fuel.

Because Haiti’s soil is largely void of plant roots, it is especially vulnerable to erosion and it’s ability to absorb and hold water and nutrients is impaired. This makes it especially susceptible flooding, while contributing to the country’s shortage of clean drinking water. The lack of forest also eliminates transpiration, which in turn reduces ambient humidity and rainfall and creates unfavorable conditions for new plant growth. All this presents substantial difficulties for Haiti’s subsistence agriculture. Haiti’s extreme deforestation thus also contributes to the country’s inadequate food supply, as well as its dismal economic condition.

The border between Haiti (left) and the Dominican Republic highlights the relative deforestation of Haiti. NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio.

January’s earthquake also raised concerns among relief workers about landslides in Haiti, as the quake may have destabilized denuded hills and mountainsides that lack trees to hold the earth in place. This may leave Haitian cities especially susceptible to damaging landslides, even as they try to rebuild. Therefore, relief and rebuilding efforts will not be enough to mitigate future natural disasters unless Haiti’s deforestation problem is addressed. Only then can this country and its people have a chance to overcome its impoverished and weakened state.

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