The city was flooded last month, during the rainy period
When the heavens opened to pour a torrent of rain on the city of Gonaïves on June 15, Israël Jeune, a student at the State University of Haiti, and his family had to make a quick choice: flee their home on Fleurissaint Alley, where the water was dangerously close to overtaking a row of blocks, or sleep standing up, for the two days the flood lasted.
The disaster caused many victims: 1,300 houses were flooded, and 3,000 families were affected by a rise in water levels of about 1.50 meters and damage to fifteen schools, according to the final report released by the Direction départementale de la protection civile de l’Artibonite in tandem with the city of Gonaïves.
The city’s vulnerability to nature’s wrath is well known to experts, but, as elsewhere, the authorities are not taking any sustainable initiatives to mitigate the risks.
According to the incumbent mayor of Gonaïves, Donald Diogène, the cleaning of drains and canals in this city has not been done for more than ten years.
“For example, the drain of the river La Quinte, which crosses the town, has been cleaned since the administration of the late President René Garcia Préval,” he says.
Much of the city was flooded after heavy rains fell for several hours in Gonaïves on May 10, 2022. A report from the comité communal de la protection civile noted 499 flooded houses, as many affected families, and one death.
Located 107 km from Port-au-Prince, the city experienced the worst floods in its history in 2004 and 2008. Several thousands of people were killed and reported missing during these disasters.
The vulnerability of the town of Gonaïves is largely due to the obstruction of the irrigation canals. “Maintenance work should be carried out periodically,” said Enold Dorsainville, director of the Travaux publics transport et communication (TPTC) of Artibonite since December 2021.
This is why the manager has sent to the Haitian state a cleaning project estimated at about 97 million gourdes after the hurricane of June 15, 2022. “This amount will contribute to the cleaning and emptying of more than 90% of the city’s canals,” says the technician.
In the middle of the rainy season, the city is on an already long waiting list. “We haven’t received anything yet from this amount, which has to be approved by the Ministry of Finance,” explains Dorsainville.
To respond to the urgency of the moment, the Ministry of Public Works preferred to allocate an amount of four million gourdes to the TPTC of Artibonite,” says Dorsainville. This amount does not represent much in terms of intervention costs given the seriousness of the problem.
More than three-quarters of Haitian cities are coastal and generally crossed by rivers.
The case of Gonaïves, for example, is much more complicated because the area is surrounded by three water currents, says Michèle Oriol, director of the Comité interministériel d’aménagement du territoire (CIAT).
“To the north is the Manyan Basin, to the west the Atlantic Ocean and Les Salines, and to the east the La Quinte River. When this river is in defluviation, it can submerge the northern part of the city.”
And because the mouths of these rivers are blocked when it rains, these waters are forced back into the city, causing flooding, she says.
After the bad weather of 2004, drainage work and cleaning of canals and gullies were carried out. The residents will quickly transform the drains built into real dumps, said Faustin Joseph, directeur départemental de la protection civile de l’Artibonite.
Gonaïves residents are even building on old irrigation systems in the city, observes Michèle Oriol.
The town is a plain located downstream from the watersheds of the city of Ennery and the river La Quinte. Moreover, these bassins are completely deforested, thus favoring the transformation of heavy rains into torrents.
“When it rains, the water from the morne d’Ennery and the morne de Puilboreau flows directly into the city of Gonaïves, located below,” she explains.
A study by a Doctor of History, Georges Eddy Lucien, published in December 2010 in the Openedition journals on the September 2008 hurricane season in Haiti, points out that the topography of Gonaïves is one of the reasons that can explain the vulnerability of this locality to flooding.
“The average altitude of the city of Gonaïves is only about one meter above the sea. To the south and north, below Morne Bienac located north of the city, the altitudes do not exceed four meters,” we read in the article. These data show the risk of rising water in this city in case of heavy rains.
However, the Morne Bienac is completely deforested. The area is filled with houses when it should be reforested to avoid the wear of the land surface.
Israël Jeune’s family had no losses on June 15. With climate change increasing the power of some natural phenomena tenfold, there’s no telling if they’ll be so lucky next time.