GONAIVES, HAITI — Mirene Raymond hasn’t seen a real downpour since last year. The 69-year-old rice farmer is one of millions at risk of malnutrition and starvation due to the combined effects of climate change and El Niño.
“This is the first time in my life that I’ve seen things this bad,” she told ThinkProgress through a translator. “We’ve had droughts before, but never like this.”
The El Niño weather pattern has caused drier than usual conditions in Haiti that have led officials to declare a national emergency. Climate scientists have warned for years of a stronger impact of El Niño due to rising ocean temperatures. Upward temperature trends have also exacerbated droughts and devastated agricultural production around the world.
Crop losses for this year have already been reported in Haiti. As a drought in the Caribbean stretches into its third year running, Raymond has tapped into all of her reserves. She used to be able to sell much of her harvest, and even buy rice from other farmers, to sell at a higher price at a local market.
We’ve had droughts before, but never like this.
This year, however, Raymond and other farmers in the once fertile Artibonite Valley will survive on what they grow.
“The Artibonite used to be able to supply the whole country with rice. People from all over Haiti used to come here to buy rice. With things as they are, we can’t even supply enough rice for people living in the region,” she said. “Now we harvest just enough for us to eat.”
More than five million Haitians face food insecurity, according to a study by the World Food Program (WFP). Of those, 1.5 million Haitians are severely food insecure. That’s twice the number recorded last autumn.
“The drought has pushed people further into poverty and hunger, and many households have experienced several back-to-back poor harvests. As a result, any alternative livelihood strategies and survival strategies are nearly depleted,” Carlos Veloso, WFP’s acting Country Director for Haiti, told ThinkProgress in an email.
“Without support from WFP donors, it will be challenging to meet these needs,” he added.
To provide basic assistance to one million Haitians worst hit by the drought, the WFP has said that it will require $84 million.
That assistance, however, won’t help to remedy the longstanding infrastructure and trade issues which have worsened the effects of the drought. According to Raymond, farmers have suffered not only from natural disasters, but also from the deterioration of a system of canals that used to move water from the mountains into the Artibonite Valley.
“The canals need to be rebuilt and restored because there’s enough water upstream. It just can’t flow down to irrigate our fields,” she said.
The only crops she can count on are those which line the now decrepit and clogged canals, she added. Further in, the rice plants are dried and yellow.
The government used to maintain the canals, but no such efforts have been made in decades and Raymond says she knows why.
“Rich people in Port-au-Prince don’t want our fields to be productive because they are importing rice from the United States,” she said. “It isn’t rice that you eat in the United States, it’s a lower quality of rice that they import into Haiti. They don’t want the area to be improved because they’re making money off of rice imports.”
About 80 percent of the rice consumed in Haiti is imported, according to a 2012 report produced by the international humanitarian organization Oxfam. Foreign rice has flooded the local market in recent years as import tariffs on the product have dropped to almost nothing.
International funding for the canal system stopped in 2011, and, according to Oxfam’s report, the Haitian governmental agency charged with its upkeep is a “dysfunctional dinosaur.”
At its mercy are farmers like Raymond who says she has not seen anyone from the Artibonite Valley Development Organization (ODVA) in years. What little they’ve been able to do to keep the canals running hasn’t been enough to irrigate their fields.
“We cannot do it by hand,” she said. “It’s a very tough job. We can clean up the edges by cutting down wild grass and weeds but we need a crane to clean out the canals.”
A crane, storm clouds, or a miracle.
“Something I know which is important is that God created everything and God created us,” she said. “God never said that we’ve been put on earth to be miserable.”
This story was produced with support from the International Reporting Project.