A few months ago, I wrote a blog post about how natural disasters contribute to hunger, and how those living at or near poverty are disproportionately vulnerable. Following that line of thought, it’s hard to imagine how things could get much worse in Haiti. First they were hit by Tropical Storm Fay. Hurricanes Gustav and Hanna followed, and Ike now threatens. According to the BBC, 200 people have been killed by these storms so far, tens of thousands have been displaced, and hundreds of thousands need assistance. And it’s not just minor assistance. The same BBC article says 200,000 in the city of Gonaives have not eaten in three days and potable water is hard to find. And as one would expect, homes and livelihoods have been destroyed. But perhaps the biggest problem is that few in Haiti have the resources to really do anything about it.
Such an onslaught of natural disaster would be difficult for the people and government of any country to bear, but in a place like Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, it’s especially devastating. Already struggling with extreme poverty, hunger, and rising food prices, the people of Haiti rioted earlier this year and threw out their prime minister. Now, with the hurricanes, rice crops have been destroyed and fruit trees have been blown down, an especially large problem in a place where two-thirds of the population are involved in agriculture. The loss of crops can only add to the long-term suffering, hunger, and political instability.
The short-term is no better. With thousands displaced and no food to be found, Haiti’s government is ill-equipped to help its people. With such a poor economy, infrastructure like roads and communication systems weren’t great before the storms. Wind and water damage have made them even worse, hampering aid efforts and posing longer-term challenges for rebuilding. What’s more, poverty has led to deforestation in Haiti, exposing soil which is now washing away in mudslides. Besides the immediate danger caused by mudslides, there are future ramifications: loss of topsoil, reduction in vegetation, and long-term degradation of the environment.
In a place where poverty is so widespread and the government so uncertain, it’s hard to imagine how Haiti will recover. Certainly we Western countries have a role to play, both in the immediate, urgent need for food and water, and also in assisting with lasting, sustainable changes.
In the meantime, if you’re looking for a case study on the causes of hunger, read up on Haiti. It highlights several factors, including: a history of corrupt, unstable, and ineffective governments; an insufficient and inaccessible education system; lack of employment opportunities; poor infrastructure; a degrading environment; and a susceptibility to natural disasters in the form of hurricanes. It’s not a comprehensive list, but it’s a frighteningly good start.