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Rising Waters in Haiti and Dominican Republic: Where Will the Villagers Go?

Flooded farms along Lake Enriquillo
Flooded farms along Lake Enriquillo

Spring break in the Caribbean conjures up images of days on the beach and nights in the clubs. But for Dr. Mimi Sheller, director of the Mobilities Center in Drexel’s College of Arts and Sciences, it meant something very different: trying to understand the effects of a climate-related or geological phenomenon that is imperiling two lakes on the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Lake Azuei, which is in Haiti, sits at an elevation of 30 meters. Its level has risen 10 meters since 2003, and its area has more than doubled in size from 155 square kilometers in 2004 to 354 square kilometers today. Three kilometers away in the Dominican Republic, Lake Enriquillo, which is at 10 meters below sea level, is also rising with no signs of stopping and has already submerged farmland, houses and roads. Rising waters are now threatening entire towns.

People were displaced from their homes because of the rising waters

“Knowing what is causing the lakes to rise will help officials in the Dominican Republic and Haiti develop effective mitigation strategies,” said Sheller. “These strategies might include relocating people by clearing new land or slowing the rise of the water by constructing levees or channels to divert water away from the two lakes.

The Dominican government has made plans to relocate many of the 10,000 people living in the area. In addition, one of the main highways linking the two countries has suffered closures and had to be reconstructed temporarily because of threats of imminent submersion.

Sheller traveled along with a team of students and faculty members from City College of New York who were spending the week installing environmental monitoring equipment on Lake Azuei, Lake Enriquillo and three other locations in the mountain range south of the two lakes.

The project, entitled RAPID: Understanding Sudden Hydro-Climatic Changes and Exploring Sustainable Solutions in the Enriquo Water Basin (Southwest Hispaniola), seeks to understand the causes for, impact of and potential mitigation strategies in response to the rising water levels.

New road to replace the one that was flooded near Lake Enriquillo

Sheller’s role on the team was to investigate the response from members of the community to potential mitigation strategies like relocation. Along with a professor and student from the Technology Institute of Santo Domingo (INTEC) and a student from CCNY, she conducted 35 interviews on the social and economic impacts of the flooding with the local inhabitants, including farmers, fishermen, teachers, priests, housewives and even political leaders, in the affected areas.

“Many of the people had lost farmland and animals, rice fields and other types of land that were the main source of income for their entire family, so they had to find other means of making a living, which can be extremely difficult,” said Sheller. “People were very happy to talk to us and were interested in finding out more about why the lakes might be rising and what their options were now that this land was lost.”

Over the coming months, Sheller will transcribe and translate the interviews from Spanish and Creole, with the help of humanities fellow Niacka Carty, a student in Drexel’s International Area Studies program. Sheller will then analyze the results and attempt to draw some conclusions from the narratives about how this environmental phenomenon has affected people and what that means for the future of the Caribbean as people are forced to migrate from island to island.

A road flooded by Lake Enriquillo

The team plans to return to the area in late summer or early fall to present their findings to various government officials, ministries of the environment, local political representatives and civil society groups in the area.

According to Sheller, “We’re hoping to turn our scientific findings into information that everyday people can understand and discuss in order to develop their own conclusions of what’s happening and what they might be able to do about it going forward.”

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