Joseph B. Treaster: Water and The World

A Continuing Discussion on Water and People on A Warming Planet

Dec 22 2010

A Problem Worse Than Cholera

Published by Knight Center under OneWater.org

MIAMI—Cholera is working its way through Haiti. It is killing people and terrifying everyone.  Medical help and money has been pouring in – not enough money, the United Nations says, but a lot of money, a lot more money than has been flowing for a much worse health problem.

In the first six weeks of the cholera outbreak in Haiti, more than 2,000 people died. During the same time, many more people in poor countries around the world died from the other health problem, an estimated 210,000.  But hardly anyone noticed.

“This is a silent killer,” said David Winder, an international aid executive in Washington who has been dealing with public health for decades.

Cholera and the bigger problem are cousins. Both are forms of diarrhea. But the more common, forms of diarrhea are far more widespread and far more deadly. Cholera kills about 120,000 people a year; the more common forms of diarrhea kill 15 times more people, about 1.8 million a year, 5,000 a day.  Hard to believe when you live in the United States or Europe; but in poor countries diarrhea is a persistent killer.

Cholera gets the headlines for good reason. It can kill in hours rather than days as with other kinds of diarrhea. “It’s very dramatic,” said Dr. Gordon M. Dickinson, a University of Miami specialist on infectious diseases at the Veterans Hospital in Miami.  People become dehydrated, go into shock and die. The other forms of diarrhea kill the same way.  But there is more time to react.

Children are the main victims. More of them die of severe diarrhea than from HIV/AIDS, malaria and measles all together.   Yet the problem has not captured the imagination.

“People think of diarrhea as a temporary illness associated with something like bad food,” said Brenda McIlwraith, a spokeswoman for WaterAid, a non-profit organization in London, working to reduce diarrhea around the world.

Very little progress is being made.  In Haiti, “diarrhea is here all the time,” said Christian Lindmeier, a spokesman for the World Health Organization in Port-au-Prince. In the first wave of cholera deaths, he said by telephone, people thought “it was just another diarrhea” and they did not seek treatment.

Cholera and the other forms of diarrhea are preventable. “We know how to deal with these diseases,” said Dr. Claire-Lise Chaignat, the head of the World Health Organization’s Global Task Force on Cholera Control in Geneva. The bacteria, parasites and viruses that cause the diseases travel in drinking water. They get into the water and, sometimes, food, along with human waste, as sewage and on dirty hands. All that needs to be done to fix the problem is to provide clean drinking water, basic toilets and some tips on hygiene.

But the scale of the problem is staggering. About 1 billion people do not have clean drinking water, the United Nations estimates, and 2.6 billion, nearly 40 percent of the world’s 7 billion people, don’t have toilets.

It could take $50 billion dollars to put a big dent in the problem. No one is sure. But right now, Mr. Winder, the head of WaterAid in America, says spending “is far below what’s needed.”

The United Nations anticipates spending $164 million to tamp down a cholera epidemic that may sicken as many as 400,000 Haitians. Only about 20 percent of the money had been raised as the epidemic settled in. But it is a real spending target. And that is a lot of money in proportion to total spending in Haiti on public health.

Spending that kind of money in advance in Haiti on clean water and toilets would have saved lives. It would have made it harder for cholera to get going. It would have been the right thing to do economically, too. Half the hospital beds in the poor countries are filled with patients with severe diarrhea. That is a daily recurring cost. Improving sanitation would reduce those costs. It would also reduce days lost at work and from school.

Doctors and engineers may know how to solve the diarrhea problem, but every day there is evidence that it is not easy. Hundreds of aid agencies are working on it, but the work is piecemeal and sometimes counter-productive. In some places, Dr. Chaignat said, the people responsible for health and water “rarely talk to each other. The health sector doesn’t understand the water sector and vice versa.”

So the plague of diarrheal diseases grinds on. The people suffering most have no political clout. They are poor and they die quietly. Sometimes they make it to hospitals. But often they die in huts and shacks and out-of-the way places. One at a time. You don’t hear about it. #

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Mar 25 2010

Fish In Haiti Are Almost As Rare As Trees

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under OneWater.org

MIAMI—As a boy in Haiti, Jean Wiener liked to poke around the coral reefs just offshore. The coral was thick and wild and splashed with bursts of orange and purple. Swarms of Yellow Tail Snappers and Nassau Groupers cruised past undulating sea fans and nibbled at rich, green sea grass. Sometimes young Mr. Wiener would catch a fish and grill it on the beach.

Now, several decades later, most of the fish are gone. “If you see anything at all,” Mr. Wiener told me the other day, “it’s almost never longer than six inches. You see little baby fish.”

Haiti has been seriously fished out. As the impoverished country’s population has risen to more than 10 million, more and more people have turned to the sea for food. It is against the law in Haiti to take under-size fish. But no one is enforcing the law and many Haitians are hungry.

Mr. Wiener grew up to be a marine biologist and one of the few specialists with an enduring interest in the coastal waters of Haiti. Now that the earthquake in January has people thinking of ways of helping Haiti, he is hoping some of them will recognize that the coastal waters could become a tremendous source of food. Tourists might also enjoy the beaches and reefs as he did as a boy.

For now, the reefs and coastal waters are as barren as most of Haiti’s land. The overworked fields of Haiti yield a tiny fraction of the produce of most other countries and in a world where overfishing is epidemic, the waters off Haiti are a model of how bad it can get.

With high unemployment, Mr. Wiener said, lots of people have become part-time fishermen. The newcomers and the experienced fishermen go at the fish relentlessly. The idea of fishing seasons is ignored and anything that gets caught stays caught. “Nothing is thrown back,” Mr. Wiener said.

To gain perspective, Mr. Wiener talked with an 80-year-old fisherman. “We used to let the sea rest during the months of January, February, March and April,” the old fisherman said. “Now there are more traps, more boats, more fishermen, more types of fishing methods. They are laying out nets all the time, everywhere.”

It’s not just pressure from hungry fishermen. The offshore waters have become a miserable place for fish. Fish thrive on healthy coral reefs. In Haiti, you don’t have that. Mr. Wiener, the founder of FoProBiM, the Fondation pour la Protection de la Biodiversite Marine of Haiti, estimates that perhaps 80 percent of the reefs along Haiti’s 1,100-mile coastline have suffered some degree of damage, some of it very heavy.

Little fish, that in the right conditions grow up to be big fish, like to nestle in sea grass beds and the tangled branches of mangroves at the edge of the shore. But maybe a third of Haiti’s sea grass has been smothered by silt that gushes off the land every time it rains because most of the country’s trees have been chopped down for firewood. Mangrove branches also make fine firewood and much of Haiti’s mangroves are also gone.

Mr. Wiener has some ideas. He is getting a little help. But he and the coasts of Haiti could use a lot more. The coasts are being included in a restoration project – mainly on land – by the United Nations Environment Program and Columbia University’s Earth Institute. The Reef Check Foundation, a marine conservation and research organization in Los Angeles, is looking for grants to finance work in Haiti’s coastal waters.

One idea is to begin creating Marine Protected Areas – places where no fishing is allowed and where reefs and grasses are cultivated. Fish get a chance to recover. As they become more abundant, some of them leave the protected areas. The coastal waters begin to recover. Reef Check has a project like this in the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, and, true to script, more fish are being seen.

There is a lot more to do in Haiti. But this would be a start. “Haiti is the only country in the Caribbean without a Marine Protected Area,” said Dr. Gregor Hodgson, the founder and executive director of the Reef Check Foundation. #

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Mar 11 2010

Haiti’s Fish and Coral, An Untold Story Of Environmental Loss

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under OneWater.org

MIAMI—Flying into Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, you see a wide, milky border stretching out to sea from the beaches. It is Haiti dying a little more, bleeding off more of its topsoil and turning the coastal waters into a disaster zone.

The mud that washes down from Haiti’s treeless hills and stains the coastline settles over coral reefs and sea grass beds like a smothering blanket and drives away fish that once helped feed the impoverished country.

The damage to the coast is yet another chapter in a story of environmental degradation that has grown worse over the years.

Some aid projects have focused on restoring the country’s forests, but no one has tried to fix the generations of harm that has been done to Haiti’s coral, its mangroves, its beaches and, most of all, its fish. Most of those things are undersea and invisible except for the lifeless, milky border that so many people simply dismiss as further evidence of the country’s loss of trees - forests destroyed to provide the only affordable fuel for cooking fires.

In a poor country where getting through each day is often a struggle, the environment has not been a high priority. But now in the aftermath of the earthquake in January that killed more than 220,000 Haitians, the United States and other countries are expected to pour billions of dollars into rebuilding the country, and some of the money will almost certainly be spent on environmental projects.

Jean Wiener is one of a few marine biologists who have taken an interest in Haiti and are hoping that restoration of the reefs and fisheries figures into the mix.

Attending to Haiti’s reefs and fishing waters and mangroves, Mr. Wiener and the others say, would be good for the economy. A comeback of fishing would mean new jobs. It would provide food. Down the road, you could see how nice reefs and beaches and cleaned up water might help draw tourists.

For nearly 20 years, Mr. Wiener, who was born in Haiti but now lives much of the time in Maryland, has been working almost entirely alone on studying and restoring the coastal waters.

As a boy he explored the coral reefs and swam through clouds of Yellowtail Snapper and Nassau Grouper. He went on to earn a degree in biology at Bridgeport University in Connecticut and take graduate courses in marine biology. In the early 1990s, he started a foundation named FoProBiM using the initials of the French words, “Fondation pour la Protection de la Biodiversité Marine” of Haiti.

Over the years he has received a few grants. Two years ago he did a study for the United States Agency for International Development. The study may provide a foundation for a comprehensive environmental project – mostly on land – that is being undertaken by Columbia University and the United Nations Environmental Program. Dr. Gregor Hodgson, the founder and executive director of the Reef Check Foundation, a marine conservation and research organization in Los Angeles, has applied for a grant to the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to do the first thorough survey of Haiti’s coastal environment.

The milky border that speaks so despairingly of Haiti has been an enduring obstacle for Mr. Wiener. For many people it is a sign of hopelessness. Obviously, the thinking goes, you can’t do much about the coral reefs and fish if they are going to be inundated with mud and silt every time it rains. Trees, lots of trees and shrubs, must be planted. Something has got to make the soil stand fast.

“Everyone concentrates on reforestation,” Mr. Wiener said, “and ignores the ocean.”

But, he said, it doesn’t have to be that way. While the mud and silt is right there in everyone’s face around Port-au-Prince and other towns and cities, Mr. Wiener said, there are long stretches of Haiti’s coast where the reefs have been damaged and snappers and groupers have been all but fished out, but where the water is fairly clear; silt is not a problem. Work could start right away in those places. #

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Feb 25 2010

Post Earthquake, Some Nasty Voices On Battered Haiti

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under Uncategorized

MIAMI—A journalist friend in New York with good ideas and a big heart had been reading reports about Haiti and its worn, unproductive and often dangerous landscape.

Most of the country’s trees had long since been chopped down for firewood. Much of the topsoil had washed away and when the rain got really heavy, the bare hills and mountains became launch pads for killing floods.

Right after the earthquake in January, my colleague in New York, Molly Gordy, suggested on Facebook that somebody start “A Tree for Haiti” program. She recalled that “A Tree for Israel” had been successful. “A Tree for Haiti” might get millions of people sending in small contributions to help Haiti with one of its most serious problems – before and after the earthquake. I thought “A Tree for Haiti” was a good idea and promoted it on my Facebook pages.

Not everyone shared my enthusiasm. One reader shot back: “Haiti is not Israel.”

It struck me as a harsh thing to say. I don’t recall much elaboration. But I think the writer was saying, “Just because Israel can make a go of a tree program doesn’t mean it would work in Haiti.” Yes, I know, the two countries are extremely different. But how stunningly uncharitable.

It especially jarred me, I think, because after the earthquake my frame of mind was: Whatever people thought of Haiti before this disaster, however infrequently they thought of it or whether they were even aware of Haiti, there would now be an unambiguous outpouring of empathy and support.

In many cases, that is exactly how people reacted. Some of those on Facebook and other social media that I’ve been following offered suggestions on what trees might grow best and how to deal with the matter of making cooking fires without perpetuating the destruction of the forest. The idea of “A Tree for Haiti” has not gathered much support, as far as I know. I’ve since discovered there are lots of tree programs in Haiti – though none has had much impact.

I expected the helpful suggestions, the support. I did not expect the hard and cold, insensitive, mean and racist commentary that I sometimes came across. Some of the remarks read like pornography, much more direct and derogatory than “Haiti isn’t Israel.” I won’t repeat them. Some people questioned the Haitian work-ethic. Some suggested that helping Haiti was a waste of good money. Some brought up population. Some talked about other things that polite, respectful people never mention, even in the heat of the most intense, hard-headed problem solving.

We’ve always had this kind of behavior. But now, with the Internet, all kinds of thoughts can rocket around the world with a few key strokes. Maybe that makes it worse. At least it pushes the gross commentary into my world. In the past I would come upon it only when I was on a professional mission - an assignment - to report on some particularly vile aspect of human nature.

I haven’t done any kind of scientific survey on this. I don’t know how widespread it is. Most of the comments I saw were from people using made-up Internet names. I didn’t try to question them on their motives or further thoughts. I just decided to call attention to the nasty behavior. People shouldn’t behave like this – even a very few people. #

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Feb 11 2010

Haiti’s Tomorrow May Be Rooted In Trees, Fertilizer

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under OneWater.org

MIAMI—Throughout the history of foreign assistance, charitable organizations and government agencies have built schools and water treatment plants and created farm projects only to discover that their good works did not really fit in with the local scene. Or that one project contradicted another. Schools and water treatment plants fell apart and experimental farms withered.

Before the earthquake in Haiti, international aid groups had begun working on a comprehensive plan to convert the country’s treeless, dirt hills and mountains and its over-farmed valleys into verdant, productive land. The key features of the plan would be linked together in mutual support. It would be the opposite of piecemeal.

That was before more than 200,000 Haitians died as homes, hotels, hospitals, stores, schools and small factories collapsed. Now the aid groups, including the United Nations Environment Program and Columbia University’s Earth Institute, are urging that restoration of the Haiti’s countryside be incorporated as a key element in rebuilding the country.

The task of restoring Haiti’s countryside is almost too much to imagine and could turn out to be impossible. Very few trees are left in Haiti because the tradition –as in many developing countries – has been to chop trees into charcoal for cooking fires. In an impoverished country, people do not buy fertilizer. After a few decades the soil in their small plots becomes exhausted. In Haiti, farmland produces five times less corn than just across the border in the Dominican Republic. Farmland in Haiti is 10 times less productive on average than in the United States.

Some of the key points of an environmental restoration project would likely include:

* Planting tens of thousands of trees, including fruit varieties that would set down long roots to help prevent erosion and also provide food.
* Providing fertilizer to increase the growth of corn and wheat and other crops. Just adding fertilizer to fields in Africa has doubled yields.
* Persuading Haitians to rely less heavily on wood and charcoal for cooking fires. Some ideas: providing inexpensive stoves that use less charcoal, hiring some woodcutters and charcoal makers to work in a security force to protect the trees, planting fast growing varieties of trees that could be used for charcoal and showing Haitians how these trees can produce the ingredients for charcoal for years if they are pruned instead of killed.
* Dredging rivers and canals and, in some cases, erecting walls along the banks to reduce flooding.

A healthy countryside would provide more food for Haiti. Flooding would be less severe. The restoration work would provide jobs. Little by little, the land would support more farmers with better crop yields.

As envisioned by the experts at Columbia, the restoration would involve a series of coordinated projects within a small section of the country. Not overly ambitious, not staggeringly expensive. If the work succeeded, it would start anew in another section. It would move section by section until the entire country had been covered. It would take a long time, maybe 20 years at a minimum. Over the long run, the work could cost hundreds of millions of dollars. But it would give Haiti a strong agricultural and environmental base for the first time in many, many years.

To start with, the Columbia plan calls for a study of the landscape and conversations with people in the area to find out how things have gone over the years and what might help. Then a set of complementary projects would be devised.

“An idea is always going to fail if you just kind of pick a village here on a hillside and try to do some good thing,” said Marc Levy, the director of Columbia University’s contribution to the Haiti project. The problems in an area, Mr. Levy said, “are all interconnected.” So the plan is to make sure all the work meshes with “all the ecological and social dynamics.” #

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Feb 04 2010

Haiti Earthquake: Greening of Hillsides Can Bolster Recovery

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under OneWater.org

MIAMI—It was long, long ago that the hills and steep, craggy mountains of Haiti were covered in rich, green forests. One by one the trees had been turned into firewood by a poor people on the way to becoming poorer. The hills and mountains became dirt slopes, spillways for rushing flood waters when it rained. The soil had worn so thin that it produced one of the most meager crop yields of any place on earth.

By the time an earthquake shattered the capital city of Port-au-Prince in January, a consensus was forming that lifting the country out of poverty depended to a great extent upon restoring the countryside. Several teams for international aid organizations had begun working on projects to replant trees and revitalize plots of corn and rice. One new group was planning to head out in a few days to begin taking soil samples in southwestern Haiti – far from the capital – when the ground shook.

Now with parts of Haiti in ruin and perhaps 200,000 people dead, the tree-planting and the soil sampling have halted. But the catastrophe makes it more critical than ever that Haiti be re-greened.

“To me this is one of the top three most important things for Haiti,” said Marc Levy, a Columbia University professor of international and public affairs working on a joint effort of Columbia and its Earth Institute with the United Nations Environment Program. “Two-thirds of the people still live in the countryside and their livelihoods have been going down every year. They were already very, very poor and things have been getting worse. That’s completely unsustainable and morally untenable. We’ve got to find some way to reverse that.”

Jobs and political stability are also at the top of the list. But now there is an earthquake to deal with. Tens of thousands of people are living in tents and makeshift shelters. They need food and water. Medical teams are trying to mend crushed victims. The capital and Jacmel and other damaged towns must be rebuilt. Mr. Levy’s own work has shifted to helping with the recovery. “The whole project is on hold,” he said.

But he does not expect the hiatus to last long. The environmental work can contribute directly to the recovery. Tree-planting, for example, can be among the public works projects. So can work on dredging rivers and streams to make them less likely to flood in hurricanes.

A hurricane helped shape agreement on addressing Haiti’s deforestation. Haiti officials and aid specialists had long known that the denuded landscape was like a dead weight on the country’s development. I spent years as a foreign correspondent in Haiti. I only saw the degradation grow worse.

But after four storms raked Haiti in 2008 and more than 800 people died in heavy flooding, momentum on fixing the environment picked up. The United Nations turned to Columbia and the Earth Institute, headed by Jeffrey Sachs, the economic development expert. Their work was to study 38 square miles of mountainside, rivers and coastline in southwestern Haiti. The idea was to develop a comprehensive plan that could be applied to the entire country. They were going to do their first field testing just as the earthquake struck. There was $3 million in seed money for the first few years of the United Nations Environment Program’s work. Mr. Levy and his colleagues thought the restoration efforts could easily stretch over 20 years – probably more. The cost would likely run into the hundreds of millions of dollars, perhaps even more than a billion.

“What makes this worthwhile,” Mr. Levy said, “is that there is no way for me to image any other way to achieve what everybody says they care about – alleviating poverty and restoring political stability.” #

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Jan 29 2010

A Drinking Water Crisis In Haiti Long Before Earthquake Destruction

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under OneWater.org

MIAMI—Long before the earthquake, Haiti was mired in a crisis that only a few experts noticed – a severe lack of clean drinking water.

The country’s 10 million people had drinking water from springs and rivers and wells and a broken-down municipal water system in the capital, Port-Au-Prince. But a great deal of the water was loaded with bacteria and parasites and, in some cases, chemicals and other pollutants.

The foul water undermined everything in Haiti. It caused chronic diarrhea, dysentery, hepatitis and even typhoid and cholera. The diseases filled hospital beds, kept children out of school and grown ups from work. And the water-borne diseases caused death. The Pan American Health Organization estimates that half of all the deaths in Haiti in recent years — apart from those in calamities like floods and hurricanes — have been the result of water-borne diseases. In most cases, severe diarrhea took hold. People became
dehydrated and very quickly were gone.

Many countries share Haiti’s plight. According to the World Health Organization, at least 1 billion people around the world do not have clean drinking water. Even more do not have toilets. The lack of clean water and toilets is a disaster. Each year, about two million people die from water-borne diseases. That is eight times the deaths in the Asian tsunami in 2004, and it happens every year. It is not on the radar of most Americans.

Most of the victims are young children. They die quietly, at home and in little clinics in slums and out-of-the way places in the countryside in India and Nepal, in Bolivia and Honduras. Hardly anyone notices that, according to United Nations data, more children die from simply drinking unhealthy water than from HIV/AIDS, malaria and measles combined.

These people do not have to die. All the technology for providing clean drinking water exists. It is not very complicated and it is not incredibly expensive. But almost nowhere in the developing world does clean water get high priority. Drilling wells and running pipelines and building water purification plants have never really captured the imagination of political leaders. The people who suffer most are the poorest, the hungriest, the least influential.

It is not that nothing is being done about providing clean water. Even in Haiti, many water projects were underway before the earthquake. Some had budgets in the millions of dollars. Some involved small private groups that were able to put in a few wells or a few dozen water treatment devices. One group, International Action, says it has installed 110 neighborhood water tank chlorinators in Port-au-Prince. But in Haiti and elsewhere, the efforts have scarcely made a dent.

Nowhere in the developing world is there a plan that coordinates national or region water projects, small and large. Inevitably, some of the good work overlaps. Some of it never gets finished. Quite often maintenance is overlooked and systems collapse. For example, in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, drinking water is fine at the treatment plant. But the water mains are corroded and punctured. They lie in the same trenches as the sewer lines and filthy waste sloshes into the drinking water.

As the rebuilding of Haiti gets underway, billions of dollars are going to be spent. Some of those dollars, perhaps a billion or more, should be dedicated to cleaning up the country’s drinking water and to making sure it stays clean. It would help put Haiti on a sound footing for the future perhaps more than any other single thing. A well-orchestrated plan for providing clean drinking water to the people of Haiti could be a model for the world. #

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Nov 12 2009

A Tree Breathes Rain, An Axe Brings It Down; Floods Sweep The Land

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under Deforestation

MIAMI—This is the story of a tree and what it means to the water supply and to the global environment. It is an ancient story but it is also a story as modern as the latest hardship in Haiti and El Salvador and parts of Africa and Asia.

The tree is called the huarango. It lives in southern Peru. Yet it can serve as a symbol for trees around the world and the influence they have on our lives.

More than 1,500 years ago, thick forests of huarango (pronounced wa-Ran-go) rose in the Ica River Valley of Peru, 120 miles south of Lima. The valley was one of the driest places on earth.  The huarango made the region livable. The trees caught sea mist and moisture in the humid air in their leaves. The mist and moisture condensed and trickled into underground reservoirs or aquifers.

Over time the trees drank up the underground water with their deep and broad network of roots. They breathed moisture into the air. The moisture turned to rain and the land provided food for thousands of people of the Nazca Culture.

But the Nazca did not fully appreciate the huarango, according to new evidence gathered by British researchers. As the Nazcas grew and prospered, they wanted more land for planting corn and other vegetables. They decimated the forests.

Then came the rains, a deluge of greater magnitude than has ever been seen. The Ica Valley was covered in silt and more than 12 feet of water. Rich soil washed away. The nearby valleys suffered, too, and the Nazca never recovered. Today a few descendents struggle to make a living in a swath of river valleys that has become almost entirely desert.

“Had the trees not been chopped down, this flood would not have been a disaster,” said Dr. David G. Beresford-Jones, the leader of a research team from Cambridge University in England in an interview from his home there. Instead, he said, much of the rain would have been caught by the trees. Their roots would have held the soil in place and the year of the flood “would have been a year of abundance.”

The devastation that can follow the destruction of forests played out in Haiti last year after several hurricanes inundated the poor country that shares the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean with the Dominican Republic. More than 800 people died in flood waters and avalanches of mud that cascaded down denuded hillsides. Haiti was once heavily forested. Even now, with most of the forests gone, the people continue to hack down the surviving trees to make charcoal to cook their food.

El Salvador, a former battlefield in Central America, has also lost most of its forests. Compared with all the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, it ranks second behind Haiti as a place of wasted forests, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

In early November, a thunderstorm that was so small it was all but ignored by forecasters, hovered over El Salvador. For nearly two days the storm let loose with heavy rain. It was the rainy season and the land was already soaked. The little storm was more than the hills could take. Clumps of earth broke loose. Huge mud slides tore through villages. At least 1,500 houses were damaged or destroyed, the New York Times reported; 140 people died.

This is the modern-day story of the huarango tree. Around the world millions of acres of trees have been bulldozed and burned. Nigeria and Brazil are countries where the trees have gone the fastest, the Food and Agriculture Organization says. Often the goal of destroying a forest is to create more open land for farming and ranching. Smoky fires from burning the trees add to global warming. The loss of trees means that less carbon monoxide is absorbed from the air. Less rain falls. Without the trees farm land requires heavy irrigation. When the rains come there is nothing to hold back the floods. Civilizations are not being wiped out these days. But lives are being lost in floods and landslides that could be prevented. Some private organizations and a few governments are replanting trees. But they have a long way to go to make up for the abuse of centuries. #

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Jun 16 2009

Hurricanes: You Can’t Win A Battle with the Wind

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under OneWater.org

MIAMI – When Hurricane Katrina walloped New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast four years ago, the evacuation got started late and many people decided to ride out the storm. Bad decision.

A lot of people had harrowing experiences. About 1,800 others died, most because of flooding.

Hurricane specialists spend much of their time preaching that early planning can save lives.  It’s a nearly full time job for forecasters at the National Hurricane Center in the off-season.  They speak at schools, churches, town halls.

The 2009 Hurricane Season started on June 1 and forecasters are predicting half a dozen hurricanes, including two or three major ones. At a recent conference of disaster experts and journalists here in Miami, some examples of the right way and the wrong way to prepare for a storm came forth.

Shortly after Hurricane Katrina, in 2005, Hurricane Wilma hammered Cancun, the glitzy Mexican resort of spring break fame. Wilma hovered over the city’s high rise hotels and outlying residential areas for 40 hours. Six hundred thousand people huddled under high winds and drenching rain. Yet not one person was reported killed, according to Hugh Gladwin, a hurricane specialist at Florida International University in Miami.

“The government did a really wonderful job,” Professor Gladwin said at the conference, organized by his university. When the hurricane warnings came, people knew exactly what to do, where to go.  “Every household, at the beginning of the hurricane season, was given tickets with instructions on where to go for shelter,” he said. The hotels had also been briefed.

When four storms hit Haiti last year toward the end of summer, it was rather different. At least 800 people died. Help was slow in arriving. Most people were on their own.

Jacqueline Charles reported on the disaster for the Miami Herald.  Haiti seems perennially on the brink. It is one of the poorest countries in the world and it has not been blessed with good leadership.  Just as the hurricane season was beginning this year the Minister of the Interior of Haiti, Antoine Bien-Aime, told the Herald, “I can’t say we’re ready.”  He added: “But we are better prepared than last year.”

In the months before the storms in 2008, there were several changes of government in Haiti. Food and gasoline prices were going through the roof. People had taken to the streets.

“Haiti was so paralyzed when the first of the storms hit, that the country was off guard and unprepared,” Ms.  Charles said.

The deaths kept rising and editors at the Miami Herald asked Ms. Charles what was going wrong.  Why hadn’t people been moved out of places that had flooded previously?

“I asked people why they had not evacuated,” Ms. Charles said. “And they kept saying, ‘We didn’t have anywhere to go.’”

In one of the worst disaster zones, a river rushed over its bank at three in the morning.  “The river just started coming,” Ms. Charles said. “You had mothers taking children and running, just running.”

Some of the same storms that tormented Haiti also raked across Cuba. Cuba did far better. Whatever else you might say about Cuba, the country is organized, block by block.

When the weather becomes dicey, the member of the Committee to Defend the Revolution on your block – the block captain - gives the order to evacuate. And that is exactly what people do.

In Florida and Texas and Louisiana and elsewhere along the hurricane coasts in the United States, police officers sometimes go out knocking on doors as storms approach. They tell people there is a mandatory order to evacuate and urge them to pack up. In the United States, however, mandatory evacuation does not mean mandatory. The police cannot make people move. Often they won’t leave their homes even when the police ask for Social Security numbers in case they need to later identify the bodies.

In Cuba, mandatory is mandatory. And an actual mandatory evacuation in the face of a hurricane does wonders for keeping casualties down. You can’t win a battle with the wind. #

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