Elismène Estimable can show visitors the level the water reached in her house in the last bad flood: a good foot above the dirt floor. “I had a two-year-old baby that I kept in my arms all the time. There was no place to leave him,” she says.
Estimable lives in a very small earth-walled home near a drainage channel running along a dirt road. The land around her is almost all mud and the road is under a foot of water in places. Floods plague her village, called Lameau, in the community of Grande-Saline in Haiti’s Artibonite River valley.
This is one of Haiti’s most productive agricultural areas, and over the years, the government and international donors have built a network of canals and channels, to divert water to dry areas, and drain out the wet ones. Small villages line these channels. Just after the harvest, many are drying their rice crop on tarps on the side of the road, near their small homes, some of which are quaint wooden houses that resemble gingerbread cottages. Others are more modest earth-walled dwellings. Children play and swim in the channels, laughing and splashing in the sun.
It looks idyllic but the Artibonite River valley can be a tough place to live, Estimable says. “When there’s too much water in our houses, in our fields, we get upset stomachs. It’s very hard to live here with so much water.” The lack of clean water in 2010 after one particularly rainy period coincided with a cholera outbreak which killed 300 people in this area, according to local officials.
Working for cash
Grande-Saline’s mayor, Erole Romeus, drew up a plan to clear out the mud and vegetation choking six kilometers (3.75 miles) of the secondary channels like the one near Estimable’s house. He’s also hired heavy equipment to widen them to handle more water flow. The project is employing two 132-member work teams in a cash-for-work program that provides much needed wages of about five dollars a day for 12 days. The project prioritizes hiring people living near the channels. About 2,000 people in 400 households live in this area and will benefit from better flood control.
Sansion Morisette is one of the workers; she has just spent the morning raking weeds out of the narrow channel running along the road next to Estimable’s house. “It’s about time we started this work,” she says. “I’m out on the street now because water destroyed my house in Rossignol. Take a look around you, we’re lucky if we can get two bags of rice out of our harvest sometimes, the water just eats everything we grow.”
Mayor Romeus says the project in Grande-Saline should take the community a long way towards reducing flooding, especially during the annual hurricane season. “Every time it rains, we can have 200 to 300 small houses destroyed,” he says standing on a flooded road next to the drainage channel, where scores of workers in white t-shirts are clearing away plants and other debris.
“We started talking about rehabilitating these channels as a means to deliver a durable solution to the people here,” Romeus says. “We came to Oxfam America because it is an organization that is interested in helping vulnerable people reduce the risks of disasters.
“Since we cleared all this out, people will probably have an opportunity to harvest. But if we did not, in another week we would have been in danger: the people, crops, and animals.”
Oxfam is devoting $20,000 for this project, which is covering about half the costs and supports the cash-for-work component, wages for heavy equipment operators, and fuel. It’s part of a larger program to reduce vulnerability to disasters in the countryside, and make it easier for people to make a living in farming, an alternative to the overcrowded conditions in Port-au-Prince.
Sancion Morisette is optimistic that the newly rehabilitated channels will help them. “Now I know that when it rains, the water will flow in the channel and go directly to the sea.”