April 6, 2023
PORT-DE-PAIX, HAITI — Anélie Ulysse’s home in Nan Palan, a small coastal neighborhood near the Port-de-Paix River, holds many memories. She lived there with her late husband and five children for over two decades.
But these days, her once busy home is largely silent; she lives alone in her corrugated iron-roofed home. Persistent flooding has left two of her five rooms too muddy to access.
In Anélie’s neighborhood, houses sit close together, some raised to stave off floodwaters, and vendors, usually residents outside their homes, sell prepared food. She lives just two houses away from the Port-de-Paix River, named after the city it runs through. This coastal city lacks a sewage system and wastewater treatment. The area is also without trash collection, and discarded waste has become a blight on this northwestern port, often blocking the river’s flow and resulting in flooding during heavy rains, affecting hundreds of nearby families. Unable to determine who is responsible for cleaning the waterways in their area, a group of residents meets regularly to pick up trash — but with deforestation and climate change bringing heavier rains and more severe flooding during the wetter months, members feel like they are fighting a losing battle.
Anélie relies on the kindness of neighbors to help clear her home when it floods. Her daughter and son-in-law used to share the house with her, but after her son-in-law died in her home following a short sickness, her daughter could no longer live in the house and moved in with her late husband’s parents. Anélie doesn’t have that option.
“This is my home. I have nowhere else to go,” the 62-year-old says. “What scares me most is flooding during the night.”
The last time her home flooded was June 2022, at the start of Haiti’s hurricane season. With help from her neighbors, she was able to clear the water from her home, but as two of the five rooms in her house have an earthen floor, they’re now too muddy to use.
“One of the vulnerabilities of the city of Port-de-Paix in terms of flooding is the small watersheds that are used in an anarchic manner,” says Rethone José, an agronomist and director of civil protection in the Northwest department, based in Port-de-Paix, who is responsible for disaster prevention, mitigation and preparation in the region. He says many of Haiti’s watersheds, the areas of land that drain into a common waterway and are essential for regulating the healthy flow of waterways, have been damaged due to deforestation.
Jusly Felix, GPJ Haiti
The Port-de-Paix River originates in the watershed of La Croix Saint Joseph, in the third district of Port-de-Paix. Rethone says that used to be a protected area but is now developed to accommodate residents there. “Over the last 20 years, there has been an accelerated degradation of the basin,” he says. “This degradation is linked to human activities,” he adds, referring to housing that has been built on watershed land.
But it’s not just the erosion of important watersheds but changing weather patterns that make the river more susceptible to flooding. Climate change has brought heavier rains, and for residents near this waterway, the rainy season is even more dangerous than hurricane season.
“Usually, depending on the level of flooding, an estimated 200 families are flooded in the downstream part of the river,” Rethone says.
Anélie says the worst instance of flooding occurred in 2004, when Hurricane Jeanne hit. She lost everything in her home and had to start again. But efforts to restore her home are continually hampered by ongoing floods, with no help from officials to clean up or rebuild.
“The neighbors are still the ones helping me empty the water from the house,” she says.
It’s this lack of assistance that prompted residents of Nan Palan to start the Young Progressive Volunteers Club. The 20-strong group meets regularly to clear trash from the river and help their community recover from persistent flooding. But with no local trash collection, the volunteers who clear trash from the river dump it on a nearby beach.
“We know it isn’t good, but local authorities aren’t giving us space to get rid of the waste,” says YPVC member Benley Joseph. “We are forced to dump it at sea.”
Jusly Felix, GPJ Haiti
As flooding grows more frequent, the group’s cleanup work is becoming more difficult. “The town hall has never helped us, even after they were asked to,” says fellow member Kermly Joseph.
Organizations such as the United Nations Development Programme, the United States Agency for International Development, and Haiti’s Northwest Departmental Delegation Office have attempted to clean up the river, but until the state takes responsibility for cleaning the waterway regularly, the issue will continue to get worse, Rethone says.
“The river has become like a goat with multiple owners,” he says. “It has been left without care and is dying under the sun. The only victim is the population.” Rethone believes either the Departmental Directorate of the Environment; the Ministry of Public Works, Transport and Communication; or the city mayor’s office has responsibility for the river.
All three agencies did not respond to numerous requests for comment.
Rethone says that while progress has been made to facilitate the natural flow of the river — the UNDP funded a retaining wall about a decade ago — the tons of waste in the river are making it all worthless. “We must always make sure the river is clean,” he says.
Anélie wants to repair her home and restart her business selling food items such as fruit and rice, which she closed after her son-in-law died. The grandmother is not only in a constant state of repair and recovery from persistent flooding but is also healing from the pain disasters have inflicted on her, including the death of her brother after Hurricane Jeanne hit his home in 2004.
“These sorrows,” she says, “will kill me.”
Jusly Felix, GPJ Haiti
Jusly Felix is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Haiti.
Megan Spada, GPJ, translated this article from French.