Post Hurricane, Haiti's Food Shortage Problems Go From Bad to Worse

When Matthew hit, the island nation was already coping with crop losses and high levels of hunger.
Men carry sacks of rice from an airplane loaded with food after Hurricane Matthew passed Jérémie, Haiti, on Oct. 7. (Photo: Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)
Oct 12, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Tove Danovich is a journalist based in Portland, Oregon.

Since Hurricane Matthew hit Haiti on Oct. 4, more than 1,000 people have been killed by the storm and its aftermath. It’s the deadliest natural disaster to strike the island nation since the 2010 earthquake that killed 230,000. Video of the hurricane shows people yelling over 146 mph winds, citizens walking through chalky knee-high water, and villages, roads, and other infrastructure being destroyed.

According to data released Monday by Haiti’s Ministry of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Rural Development, 42,811 acres of crops in the Southeast department alone were affected by the hurricane. In Nippes department, 70,000 goats, 24,000 sheep, and 20,000 cows were lost—and that’s just a sample of the livestock destroyed in the country. The total crop loss, the World Food Programme estimates, could account for as much as 80 percent of domestic harvests.

As with many natural disasters, international aid is arriving in the form of food, shelter, water, and medical attention. Yet for disaster relief to be a success, it has to both address the immediate situation and help set up the country for long-term sufficiency.

That’s a difficult prospect in Haiti, where the food supply was already in a precarious position. As the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported in June, roughly 3.6 million citizens are food insecure—with 1.5 million facing severe food insecurity—in a country of just 10 million. In 2015, when Haiti was in the midst of a drought, the country’s output of cereal and starchy roots dropped to its lowest level in 12 years, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. Overall, the drought may have caused crop losses of as much as 70 percent, the U.N. found. Now, Matthew.

The World Food Programme has a long-term presence in Haiti, where it provides hot meals to children, works with local government to increase food production, and does emergency preparation work. “That’s one of the lucky things that’s happened with the hurricane,” said Alexis Masciarelli, a communications officer for the World Food Programme. “We already had enough food in the country to feed 300,000 for a month.”

One initial challenge after a disaster is rebuilding infrastructure. “The major roadblocks are literally that—roadblocks,” said Laura Sewell, CARE Haiti assistant country director. “Access remains a challenge, as big aid trucks have difficulties on roads that are littered with tree trunks and other debris.” She added that one CARE truck recently got a flat tire while trying to make a delivery. The storm washed away roads and bridges, including the one connecting Port-au-Prince to the southern peninsula, making distribution of emergency resources difficult. After the bridge collapsed, it took three days for an alternate route to be cleared.

With roads gone, Masciarelli said, food drops are being made by helicopter—the World Food Programme has transported 500 pounds of emergency rations throughout the country since last week’s hurricane.

Rebuilding has been an ongoing issue for Haiti, which hasn’t fully recovered from the devastation of the 2010 earthquake. For agriculture, frequent tropical storms aren’t the only challenge: Like many island nations, Haiti has only a small amount of land per capita, explained Eugenio Diaz-Bonilla, a visiting senior research fellow with the International Food Policy Research Institute, who has nine years of experience working with the Haitian government and external organizations. He explained that the uses of Haitian land, including agriculture, have led to deforestation, soil erosion, and other issues that can increase the effects of a hurricane like Matthew. “It’s a combination of bad geography and bad luck,” he said.

Once initial concerns like spreading cholera—which was brought to the island by aid workers following the earthquake and continues to cause the highest levels of illness for any country in the northern hemisphere—starvation, and lack of shelter become less dire, organizations have to make sure they have “a viable program to revive the production capacity in the country,” said Diaz-Bonilla. These programs may take the form of improving irrigation for rice paddies, investing in poultry production, or supporting the development of new export crops—all projects that were under way before the hurricane.

“We have to respond to the emergency right now,” said Masciarelli. “In the long term, we want people to be self-sufficient again, but that’s something that we are only starting to discuss.” He described people as still being “very much in shock” even a week later. “People are trying to come to terms with what has happened and get their lives organized.”