Haiti: Water for the Artibonite Valley

The Artibonite department is one of the most important regions of Haiti. For centuries, its thousands of acres of luxuriant vegetation carried the weight of the nation’s national production of rice, which once totaled 210,000 metric tons annually. As the most important and appreciated element of the country’s diet, the rice market single handedly supported the rural economy, helped famers prosper, and supplied rice to the entire country.

Today the once lush acres of the Artibonite Valley are austere and unused. The irrigation dams and canal, crucial to the production of rice, are either dry or deteriorated. Consequently, Haitian rice farmers are left poor, struggling, and in debt. There are several reasons for this. Trade policies, environmental degradation, unsustainable farming techniques, poor irrigation, and poor mechanization are factors that have likely contributed to its demise.

But one problem has stood above them all: the ability to manage water resources effectively.

Today, water can be a blessing, and other times, a curse for the region. Due to deforestation, the usual and expected heavy rainfall during the rainy season immediately ends up in the valleys, flooding fields and villages. As the old adage goes, when it rains it pours. Rainstorms often leave whole towns under water and rice fields resembling lakes.

During the dry season, usually lasting from November until March, there is little farming activity in most parts of the country. Unused and clogged irrigation canals play no role in agricultural production. However, despite the erratic consequences of the seasons, one thing that is certain is that Haiti needs a better balance between food supply and population growth to enhance its food security.

Reforestation can help restore natural water catchments. Moreover, trees can also help mitigate the effects of extreme weather events by controlling the flow of surface water and reducing the runoff of soil. Lastly, trees can also reduce the risk of droughts by retaining water in the local environment and cooling local temperatures by shading the soil.

Better technology can also help. One of the most exciting and newest technologies in irrigation –drip irrigation—saves water and helps farmers get more crops per drop. Irrigated agriculture can help Haiti once again produce more rice, of better quality, with less water. Significant improvements are already technologically possible in water delivery and application efficiency to ensure the best crop yield and water conservation.

Today on World Water Day 2012, we celebrate the significant progress that has been made and acknowledge the challenges that we face as a world. Water can be a key catalyst in the revival of Haiti’s Artibonite Valley. Initiatives such as repairing and scaling up irrigation canals, introducing new irrigation technologies, reforesting bare lands, combined with the right mechanization and strategy, can give the Artibonite Valley a desperately needed shot in the arm. These simple strategies can help everyone leverage our most important resource for our most basic needs.

Wesley Laîné is a graduate of the College of the Holy Cross and Program Manager for International Action, which is rebuilding the water system in Port-au-Prince, Haiti following the disastrous 2010 earthquake. International Action has developed a tank and chlorination system that can supply safe water to thousands of people, neighborhood by neighborhood, helping to prevent cholera, hepatitis, typhoid and chronic diarrhea, the leading killers of children in Haiti.