Staying Afloat: The Race to Understand Rising Waters

Joseph* is a truck driver from Fonds-Parisien, Haiti, who has nine children. His family has lived by Lake Azuei for generations.

In the past 10 years, the lake has risen more than 10 meters and has doubled in size, from 155 square kilometers in 2004 to 354 square kilometers today. As the waters rose and began to spill over the banks, Joseph’s land has gradually disappeared underwater, taking with it his home and those of his extended family.

“[The floodwaters] have diminished our ability to work because we lost nearly everything we invested in this land,” Joseph says in an interview translated from his native language, Haitian Creole. “Life has become much worse because we have to find a way to build other houses. With no money, that is a tough situation.

We are here with nothing now. If we had visas, we would be gone already. [But] we don’t have a choice.”

Three kilometers away, in the Dominican Republic, Lake Enriquillo is also rising with no signs of stopping, and has already engulfed farmland, houses and roads. One of the main highways linking the two countries has suffered closures and had to be reconstructed temporarily. Rising waters are now threatening entire towns. As livestock, crops and trade routes are lost, so are livelihoods.

In an effort to understand the toll that the surging waters have taken, Dr. Mimi Sheller, director of the Center for Mobilities Research and Policy (mCenter) in Drexel’s College of Arts and Sciences, joined a team studying the imperiled lakes on the border between the two countries.

“Knowing what is causing the lakes to rise—whether it’s a climate-related or geological phenomenon—will help officials in the Dominican Republic and Haiti develop effective mitigation strategies,” says 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 project, titled “Understanding Sudden Hydro-Climatic Changes and Exploring Sustainable Solutions in the Enriquo Water Basin (Southwest Hispaniola),” received nearly $200,000 in funding from the National Science Foundation’s Rapid Response Research (RAPID) grant program, designed specifically to respond to unusual circumstances that need to be addressed with some urgency. The mechanism has been regularly used to enable research on unanticipated events such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions or any other event where a timely presence is required.

“The lakes are rising rapidly and, as hurricane season is approaching, the water levels pose an even greater threat to people,” Sheller says. “We need to get answers back to the government and people in the community as soon as possible.”
In March, 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.

On the team were CCNY professor Michael Piasecki, a former associate professor in Drexel’s Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering, and Franco Montalto, an assistant professor in the College of Engineering, both of whom Sheller had previously traveled with to Haiti on another NSF RAPID grant to mobilize local knowledge to solve water and sanitation problems following the earthquake in 2010.

Sheller’s role on the team was to investigate the community’s response to potential mitigation strategies, particularly that of relocation. Along with a professor and student from the Instituto Tecnológico de Santo Domingo (INTEC) and a student from CCNY, she conducted 35 interviews on the social and economic impact of the flooding with the local inhabitants, from farmers and fishermen to teachers, priests and even political leaders, in the affected areas.

“People were very happy to talk to us and were interested in finding out more about why the lakes might be rising.”

“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,” says 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 are now that this land is 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 conclusions from the narratives about how this environmental phenomenon has affected people as well as what that means for the future of the Caribbean as people are forced to migrate from island to island.

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 both countries.

“What is really interesting about this research is that Haitians and Dominicans have to solve a common environmental problem while dealing with two very different states and legal codes, two distinct languages, two very different economies, two national currencies—not to mention different telecommunications infrastructures, foreign relations and cultures,” says Sheller. “It makes it truly challenging.

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

Sheller’s findings have implications for her research on mobilities, especially as it intersects with infrastructure and sustainability. “To the extent that changing climate and weather patterns might be related to what’s happening, it’s indicative of many areas of the Caribbean that are environmentally vulnerable and fragile,” Sheller says.

“As climate change continues to produce dire effects, such as the dying off of coral reefs, droughts and heavy rainfall, it will lead to more instances where people will need to move in order to rebuild their lives and livelihoods. The Caribbean has a long history of people migrating between islands and countries in order to find work—this will probably increase in the future, impacting the way we govern mobility and border-crossing.”

In the meantime, as to what solutions could help people affected by the flooding, as one elderly woman from La Source put it in her native Haitian Creole: “That’s a question for the children. I’ll be under the ground.”

As waters rise in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, a Drexel social scientist traveled to the Caribbean to find out why—and what it means for the future of the island region.