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Kanal la pap kanpe (Keep building the canal): Let’s engineer to last and sustain regional development.
Our struggle to secure water resources, a case analysis 

This article is based on solutions proposed during HAMREC’s Sept 23, 2023, live discussions. It is part of articles, podcasts, and conferences on economic justice and natural resource management.

Haiti’s initiative to open a canal branching off the Massacre River is all over the news. According to the Miami Herald, the closure of the 220-mile border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti has been attributed to concerns over constructing a canal branching off the Massacre River on the Haitian side. The river has its source at Pico Gallo in the Dominican Republic. The Dominicans have expressed dissatisfaction with the canal's engineering, claiming that it is inadequately designed and causing the diversion of crucial water resources necessary for agricultural irrigation in both nations. The government of Abinader also has mentioned that it believes “the canal is a maneuver to control water by a small economic-political elite to profit from its sale to small producers in the area.

Water is a fundamental resource that sustains life and economic progress. Water availability is crucial in supporting agriculture, energy generation, and industry. Fraiture et Al. think that to grow enough food to meet future needs, we must develop and handle water resources to improve food security, keep our land and water resources productive, and make the world nicer (Molden, 2007). Research and policy studies in agriculture, water management, economy, and human health can help find methods that work.

Land can transform itself if it finds water. Rivers are vital in providing freshwater for agricultural use and human consumption. It is a fact that appropriating a substantial percentage of a river's water can result in a shortage of water resources downstream. However, we must reiterate that building this new canal is simply tapping a shoulder portion of the river into a narrower passage to irrigate nearby land. It is not a redirection of the river. It would be unrealistic.

Siphoning off river water into canals is commonly seen globally. At HAMREC, we encourage and fully embrace the initiative to build the canal. We hope people in Haiti continue to build more where necessary in the next three years. Our philosophy aligns with extracting the most out of canals to benefit all nearby farmers, not just wealthy landowners. However, we wish to see the canals built correctly according to international norms, proper engineering, and environmental studies. We champion Research and innovation. We believe that ongoing work on water-efficient crop varieties, irrigation technologies, and sustainable farming practices can lead to continuous advancements in agricultural water conservation.

This analysis is not intended to bash the Dominicans or to be an engineering plan and a mitigation strategy document. However, it's important to note that maintenance and monitoring of canal systems are essential to minimize the risk of flooding and water erosion. Additionally, effective flood forecasting and warning systems can help mitigate the impact of canal-related flooding by allowing authorities to take appropriate measures to protect people and properties. After all, this structure is being built on a shoestring budget. There is no proper funding. The engineering study is not widely available.

The two nations sharing the island are separated by a long river basin that traverses national boundaries, and instances of historical tensions or conflicts between Haiti and the DR have further intensified due to the former’s decision to build the canal.   For more than three decades, we have seen side-by-side satellite images comparing the two nations. Although these pictures can be misleading, the current conflict opened our eyes and brought evidence of non-irrigation's role in the comparison. It begs the question, is Haiti less green due to a lack of water resources? The conventional wisdom points to deforestation for the charcoal market. However, Haiti has a drier climate, with mountains blocking rains coming from the east. As a mountainous country, Haiti has fewer valleys and a smaller footprint for large-scale agriculture. Limestone terrain is abundant, and the soil recovers much slower for goods production. The rivers delineating the border between the two nations flow more significantly on the Dominican side. The picture below from Google Maps shows the flora is better in Haiti near locations where the river flows on Haiti’s side of the border.

The post-construction phase is one aspect the Haitians do not widely discuss on social media. At HAMREC, we beg to have a comprehensive plan in place.  It is a known fact that a canal branching off a river can lead to flooding under certain conditions. While the purpose of the Massacre River canal is to irrigate nearby agricultural land, several factors can contribute to massive flooding. Excessive or prolonged rainfall, blockages, inadequate maintenance, design flaws, upstream urban development, and land use can alter the natural flow of water. Increased urbanization can lead to more runoff, which can overwhelm the canal system levee. Failures, Inadequate Spillways: Canals are often equipped with spillways to release excess water during heavy rainfall. If these spillways are too small or blocked, it can lead to flooding. Unpredictable and intense weather events, such as hurricanes or flash floods, can overwhelm canal systems and lead to flooding, even if they are well-maintained.

Proposed Solutions

Haiti is living an ecological nightmare with its mountainous landscape. A pressing concern is the need to understand better how plants interact with the soil. It is no longer a secret that lands in most locations in Haiti are under poor management. We witness farming areas losing topsoil, increased population, and climate change that will worsen things. The ensuing food insecurity is not only evident but also devastating. In contrast, neighboring countries have been able to manage their lands for many decades properly.

River Basin, pond, lakes

We need to build more lakes. Numerous geographical areas use river basin management plans to guarantee the sustainable utilization of water resources. Various methods may gather rainwater, including roof-based collection systems, surface runoff collection, and underground storage tanks. Conserving and harvesting water are everyday techniques in cultivating land areas such as the Maribaroux plain and surrounding the river massacre, where water may be scarce and with seasonal precipitation patterns. These practices assist farmers and agricultural practitioners in optimizing water use, enhancing crop productivity, and mitigating the ecological consequences of farming practices.

Perform Studies

According to FEMA, Channels and canals are artificial structures that use the force of gravity to transport water for various purposes, such as flood prevention, drainage, irrigation, and water delivery. Aqueducts include different infrastructure elements, such as pipes, ditches, canals, tunnels, and other buildings, which transport water. As such, these systems have vulnerabilities and are prone to causing damage to surrounding areas during hurricanes and heavy rains if there are no strategies to mitigate these factors.

A study of soil erosion, water strength, gradient slope, and incline pitch needs to be performed. Water erosion is the process by which soil is detached and transported by water, displacing the eroded materials from their original location. The erosive impact of rainfall on soil results in water-related processes such as stream erosion, which subsequently contribute to downstream consequences such as floods and sediment accumulation.

Welthunger reports that “the average soil loss observed in the 400 square kilometers of the watersheds of the three rivers Jassa, Lamatry, and Rio Massacre is close to 150 tons per hectare per year, although this varies greatly and can even get as high as 12,770 tons.” 

Strength in Unity: Building a model for more to come.

Haitians' propensity to unite to undertake important endeavors that successfully provide collective benefits is a phenomenon to be expected. Historically and culturally, a “kombit” involves the collaborative efforts of males engaging in physically demanding tasks like excavation and heavy lifting while women and children concurrently participate in sowing seeds. The concept of togetherness among Haitian families evokes their spiritual and fraternal sentiments. This event allows individuals to sing, consume beverages, partake in culinary delights, and engage in cheerful banter. The harvested produce is then distributed to all the individuals involved.

We celebrate the inspiring unity and solidarity effort to make the canal a reality. It shows that we desperately need a leader to unite us to move the country forward. We can turn the passion around the canal into a more significant movement. The observed phenomenon of unity around the canal construction may be attributed to the underlying principle of compassion. Each Haitian supporting the push to finish the canal knows that the struggle pertains to preserving one's inherent worth and pursuing personal freedom. The best outcomes can only come from self-sacrifice and a certain degree of discipline. More importantly, we should not be distracted from the dominant current issue of gang criminal activities.

Recommended Solution

In our economic justice series, we spoke at length about the government's lousy management of our water scarcity, sanitary conditions, and the deterioration of our lands. We have often talked about the ineptitude of the leaders at the country's helm. 

We recommend that the Haitian government overtake the completion of the canal. It is concerning that Mr. Abinader said that the Haitian government didn’t authorize the work and was being carried out by a group of former members of parliament and other government officials. In his speech at the UN last month, Prime Minister A.I. Ariel Henry announced that his regime will collaborate.

There needs to be a national convention to protect and regulate the resource. Rivers flowing within the western side of the border are a resource protected by Article 35.5 of the 1987 Haitian constitution. A miserly DINEPA budget of less than 1% is currently dedicated to managing, caring for, and preserving water in Haiti. More money needs to be allocated. A presidential initiative and a national awareness campaign promoting environmental education and water protection would be the basis for regulations. This effort cannot be accomplished without a comprehensive approach to introducing modern infrastructures. These measures must consider the drought currently being experienced in the area.

The government of Haiti must avail itself and take full responsibility for constructing the canal according to the required technical standards. The officials cannot back away. All-terrain studies should come from an official team of engineers, and any documents produced should be kept safely inside the country’s national archives. Leaving it in the hands of an emotional populace with nationalist ideals and deep-seated hatred against the Dominican Republic will only lead to half-measures. The current initiative at the hands of a crowd may produce an ill-conceived structure that may be detrimental to the area, impacting crops and the livelihood of the people living in the Maribaroux’s plain.

The dangers of the Dominican Republic forcefully assuming control or redirecting the water flow are real. Consequently, this might give rise to economic disagreements and possibly instigate conflicts. The socioeconomic stability of the Haitian diaspora in RD is in jeopardy because of the canal. Regardless, the country needs a better grip on managing its resources.

The Haitian government's participation should ensure that the current irrigation systems can use more of the region's water safely and cost-effectively. The canal will require continuous investments in labor. Maintenance and operation costs of the canal and its arteries will require regular upkeep. We must be ready to deal with more mosquitoes in the area and diseases from those who use the water for cooking and drinking. Conflicts may arise among Haitians about who gets more water. The most affluent owners will always win the fight. Another issue that will arise is sediment and trash in the canal, causing blockages and accumulating damaging salts and alkalis from deeper levels to the surface.

Possible Outcomes

The canal will not end Haiti’s reliance on Dominican food imports. However, its construction is an excellent first start to reduce the trade deficit. By focusing on the technical aspects and a comprehensive plan to sustain irrigation in the areas surrounding the canal, we can guarantee a blueprint for more canals inland and further down along the border. Making the government responsible and giving them control over the canal development process ensures more effective water management. Modern irrigation technology and sustainable irrigation methods are essential for protecting water supplies. A well-built irrigation system is vital to prevent over-extraction of water from rivers and aquifers, which may cause environmental deterioration and even water shortages. The best outcome is an ideally well-engineered and clean structure comparable to the picture below, which shows a canal in India.










Belizaire Vital MPA, DHA

Director of Research and Analytics


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