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Nearly two years ago today, I woke with a sickening feeling in my stomach. It was October 4, 2016, and my country, Haiti, was about to be hit by Hurricane Matthew, one of the worst storms the world has seen.
Radios and televisions blared non-stop with warnings for residents to leave their homes and head to shelters. But while many of us prepared to ride out the storm, people in some of Haiti’s poorest communities were unaware of what was about to hit.
More than 6,500 of the families my organization, Heifer International, works with, found themselves in the path of the storm. They faced long, dangerous nights trying to keep their families and animals safe.
But this isn’t a story of death and destruction. Although many lives and livelihoods across the country were lost as the deadly storm made its way north, it also brought new life to the drought-hit community of Cabaret in the northwest region of Haiti.
Years ago, Cabaret used to be home to a 25-acre swamp called Mare Verger. The soil around the swamp was good for farming and the fields were packed with squash, pumpkins and enough healthy food to feed local families.
But by 2000, water levels in the swamp had already fallen dramatically. Two years of severe drought from 2013 to 2015 made the situation even worse, and it dried out completely. Crops withered and died, and farmers in the community increasingly chopped down the remaining trees, producing charcoal – one of their few sources of income.
A local farmer takes his cattle down to drink from Lake Verger.
Dugat Esaie, a local farmer from Cabaret, told me it had been very difficult to get water for animals and even harder to grow crops, because of the drought.
“I used to have to walk kilometers every day to get fodder and water for my livestock. I tried growing sorghum for part of the year because it needs less water, but I would often lose the harvest because it didn’t rain at all,” he said.
With the trees gone, the top soil washed away, and the swamp became caked in mud that set hard like cement. After Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake, Heifer had started working with the community to boost their livelihoods, but plans to produce fodder and food crops failed, as the soil was completely leeched of nutrients.
It was clear that the key to tackling hunger and improving food security in this community lay in supplying water to the farming families, who were spending hours a day walking long distances just to get enough to drink.
Rainwater harvesting has kept Lake Verger topped up, providing farmers with a reliable source of water.
A plan was hatched to turn the old swamp area into a lake which, when full, would have the capacity to irrigate 250 areas of farmland. Heifer provided the funding to re-dig the lake and rainwater harvesting would keep the lake topped up. But a large supply of fresh water was needed to get it up and running. That’s when Hurricane Matthew hit.
When it tore through southern Haiti, 2 million people – 20 percent of Haiti’s population – were affected, with flooding, landslides and high winds causing extensive destruction to infrastructure and people’s livelihoods. The storm battered the area for a few days, but when it cleared, Cabaret’s lake was almost completely full of water.
With water from the lake, the surrounding land has once again become valuable for growing food. Local farmers like François Wilman are now able to grow sorghum, corn, and beans, and can harvest their crops three times a year.
“With the construction of the lake, this area has changed completely,” he said. “With increased production, my family has been able to eat more and better food, and my income has increased considerably. Our community as a whole is now much more food-secure.”
Today, much of the farmland is back in production, providing food for local families, and hundreds of livestock use the lake for water every day. Heifer has also supported the community to introduce 5,000 fish to the lake which will serve as an important source of protein.
In total, more than 17,000 people are benefiting from the increase in food production linked to the lake. It remains at about 70 percent capacity and the community has dug a network of channels to funnel storm water from the hills into the lake so that it continues to be replenished.
“The last two years have been a blessing for my community,” said Dugat Esaie. “First, more production, income and quality of life of the farmers and their families. Second, no more losing our animals because of lack of water and food. The irony is that the lake was filled completely by Hurricane Matthew and subsequent storms that brought misery and destruction to many other people.”
Hervil Cherubin is Heifer International’s Country Director in Haiti.