PETIT-GOAVE, Haiti – Before Sandy dumped more than 20 inches of rain on Haiti, rural towns like Petit-Goave were relatively prosperous, their crops of banana, pigeon peas and yam helping feed the island nation’s southern peninsula.
The hillside farms and plantations were among those that had been mercifully spared from previous disasters and disease in a country struggling under the weight of a severe food crisis. Now, with ruined roads and crops destroyed throughout the country, international aid and Haitian authorities are worried about a worsening food crisis in a country still recovering from a year of drought, a weak economy and a previous storm.
“Whatever was left of a potential harvest is gone,” said Johan Peleman, head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs here. “Even the banana harvests seem to be gone.”
On Sunday, Haiti’s government reiterated its appeal to the international community for emergency humanitarian aid to deal with Sandy’s disaster. Five days earlier, the government declared an islandwide state of emergency, initially assessing losses to livestock, crops and infrastructure from Sandy at $104 million. The southern peninsula, which includes scores of rural communities, accounts for one-third of the losses, said Gary Mathieu, head of Haiti’s National Food Security Coordination unit. The south’s largest city, Les Cayes, reports a 70 percent loss of its avocado, breadfruit and corn harvests, washed away during four consecutive days of rain.
The losses come just nine weeks after Tropical Storm Isaac pounded a nearby region, resulting in $70 million in damages and rising food prices. The one-two punch threatens to make the country’s poorest population even poorer.
“Life will become even more expensive,” said Jeannita Constant, 29, staring at her field of fallen plantain trees as Sandy’s relentless rains fell. “Lots and lots of money have been lost.”
In the far northwest, farmers were only now preparing to replant after a drought earlier this year when Sandy’s downpour soaked their fields.
“It takes a certain farmer with confidence to try and plant,” said Comete Rigaud, 40, a farmer in Cabaret, a depressed but bucolic village between Port-de-Paix and Jean-Rabel. “If it’s not the sun, it’s the rain.”
Food insecurity woes are nothing new in Haiti, a place where high food prices in 2008 triggered rioting and the ouster of the prime minister. Months later, four back-to-back storms led to children dying of malnutrition in a remote village in the southeast mountains.
Haiti’s latest disaster comes amid recent anti-government protests over rising food costs, the country’s continuing struggle to dig out from the January 2010 earthquake and the world’s worst cholera epidemic. Sandy hit two weeks ahead of a Haitian government conference on extreme poverty scheduled for today through Friday. The keynote speaker, World Bank President Jim Kim, will be making his first official visit to the region.
Earlier this year, at the request of the government, the World Bank provided help to farmers in the northeast after they lost peanut, plantain and other crops to pests and drought. Bank officials also remained concerned about the price hikes that ensued, including an inexplicable jump in the price of imported U.S. rice that did not match international price trends.
Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe, trying to calm mounting discontent over the hikes, stepped up free food distributions, announced a rice donation from Japan and launched a rice commission to address the growing food security concerns. He also announced the government was considering opening public food stores and food storage, measures international experts warn have shown to be very inefficient and ineffective in helping consumers.
Sandy’s damage, combined with Isaac’s, the rising food costs and a drought that hit the northern regions of the country earlier this year, means up to two million Haitians are now at risk of malnutrition, the U.N. said Friday at a press briefing in Geneva.
“These people will continue to struggle till the next large harvest in mid-2013,” said Myrta Kaulard, Haiti director for the U.N. World Food Program. “The struggle will be tough.”