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What I was doing in Haiti

Written by Wes Lauer
January 26, 2010

While Haiti has come into sharp focus in the American media after the devastating earthquake of Jan.  12, the country has for too long faced a chronic food shortage. Even though some of the problems can be traced to long standing political policies of the United States and European countries, another significant problem involves the environmental devastation associated with intensive agricultural development of erosion-prone hill slopes and the common practice of harvesting wood from environmentally sensitive tropical dry forest. Cultivation of steep upland slopes and the loss of forest has led to some of the worst soil erosion in the world. 

Agricultural self-sufficiency would probably go a long way toward addressing some of the chronic poverty of Haiti.  The recent earthquake underscores this need. Many residents of Port-au-Prince have traveled to the countryside to stay with relatives, so the problems of food production and distribution are likely to become more intense over the next several months. The loss of topsoil from the uplands has caused productive agriculture to move to lowland, depositional settings. Presently, lowland floodplains represent some of the best agricultural land in the country, but these areas are often devastated by floods when hurricanes move through.

In my role as advisor to a team of four undergraduate Civil and Environmental Engineering students, Jenny Graves, Vanessa Mitchell, Devin O’Neill, an Adam Stricker, I recently traveled to Haiti to evaluate a flood management project along a historically productive floodplain, the Plaine des Moustiques northeast of the town of Port-de-Paix.  The project is being performed through the College of Science and Engineering project center with the support of a local engineering consulting firm, Herrera Environmental Consultants. 

The project is a small part of a comprehensive agricultural development project sponsored by the Belgian NGO PROTOS and being constructed in Haiti by Bruce Robinson, a missionary and engineer who works for the nonprofit Crossworld. The work has also been supported by Mark Siegenthaller and Debra Chen, both of whom have served as adjunct faculty in Civil and Environmental Engineering.   

My trip was originally scheduled for Jan. 8 to 15 but my return was delayed for a week by the earthquake. I was accompanied for the duration of the trip by a group of 12 volunteers from University Presbyterian Church (UPC) in Seattle who volunteered their time and expertise for the construction of a school.  One of the UPC volunteers, Stewart Bowerman, had taken a fluid dynamics course from me in 2009. 

The floodplain of Riviere des Moustiques is one of the few green areas in this semi-arid part of Haiti.  The clay-rich soil on the floodplain has enough water holding capacity to provide a decent crop even during moderate droughts. Plantains represent the most important crop, but these are damaged whenever large floods occur. The most recent agricultural disaster was associated with Hurricanes Hanna and Ike which devastated the area during the first week of September 2008. The agricultural problems were related both to direct scour associated with high-velocity flood water and a lack of drainage on the floodplain that caused water to pond on certain gardens for days. The plantain trees that managed to survived the flood produced only a meager crop in 2008. 

The senior design project attempts to address the flooding problem by diverting some of the flood flow away from the center of the floodplain and into a low-lying mudflat known as La Saline. La Saline is presently protected from the floodplain by a low topographic rise. Cutting through the rise and constructing a bypass channel across the floodplain between the main river channel and La Saline will reduce flood magnitude and frequency on the floodplain and should also build new farmland in and adjacent to La Saline. As of January 2010, Bruce Robinson had already begun to excavate the flood diversion channel. The student design team will perform hydraulic and sediment transport analyses to ensure that the channel remains stable even during large flood events. The team will also design an inlet and outlet structure to the channel so that flow within the system can be managed proactively.

For more coverage on Lauer's experience in Haiti, click here.