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Story Publication logo March 3, 2016

The Relentless Rise of Two Caribbean Lakes Baffles Scientists

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On the island of Hispaniola, conflict over land is putting people’s future on unsteady ground.

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LETANT, Haiti—On a recent calm day, the surface of Lake Azuéi has no waves, not even any ripples. Pillars of pastel-colored concrete break the still surface, the tops of what once were houses. They are all that's visible of the community that once thrived here.

Alberto Pierre, a skinny, wide-eyed 25-year-old, said the submerged village where he grew up wasn't even near the lake. "The water used to be many kilometers from here."

Lake Azuéi, the largest lake in Haiti, lies about 18 miles east of Port-au-Prince, the capital, nestled along the border with the Dominican Republic. Also known as Étang Saumâtre, the lake rose so much between 2004 and 2009 that it engulfed dozens of square miles.

"At first we put rocks so it wouldn't come into our houses," Pierre says. "But then the water just overran the rocks." Families in the village of Letant began abandoning their houses, building huts on higher ground using wood, tarps, whatever they could find. By 2012, all 83 houses had been vacated.

"We don't know why the water is rising," he says.

In fact, nobody does. There seems to be no logic to the lake's rise. Experts from the United Nations, a French engineering firm, a Dominican Republic university, a New York City college and many others have looked for clues to explain the rise of Lake Azuéi and neighboring Lake Enriquillo, just across the border in the Dominican Republic. But few of the theories seem to hold water. Some now hypothesize the phenomenon is related to climate change, but the evidence is counterintuitive: Unlike ocean levels, which rise with climate change, lakes tend to shrink.

For the estimated 400,000 people living in the watershed of the two lakes, the fallout has been severe. Lake Enriquillo rose an incredible 37 feet in less than 10 years, doubling in size and swallowing at least 40,000 acres of farmland.

Most of those who lost their land are poor farmers.

Displaced from their farmland, some are turning to a nefarious occupation: charcoal. Illegal loggers are cutting down trees in the Dominican Republic to produce 50,000 tons of charcoal annually, which they sell in Haiti. The U.N. estimates it's a $15 million a year business. They transport it under the cover of darkness on small boats across Lake Azuéi, which has risen high enough to straddle the border.

Meanwhile, the water is destroying a fragile ecosystem. Cao Cao birds (Hispaniolan Palm Crow, or Corvus palmarum) and other bird species lost their habitat as trees where they once nested died, their roots drowned by the water. Endangered Hispaniola ground iguanas (Cyclura ricordi) and rhinoceros iguanas (Cyclura cornuta) were forced to flee the protected island in the center of Lake Enriquillo for higher ground above the shoreline where they compete with humans and other wildlife.

"The crocodiles can't lay their eggs there anymore, so they climb higher, onto the rocky hillsides," explains Adifer Miguel Medina Terreras, 23, who works with conservationists at the national park that encompasses the lake, offering boat rides to the island for tourists eager to see iguanas and crocodiles. "But there the eggs break. Cats, mules eat or trample the eggs." At the turn of the century, Terreras says, you could ride a motorcycle to the island during dry season—the water was that low. Back then, he says, "everyone thought the lake was going to disappear."

The waters' rise is also hurting the economy of both nations. Stuck together on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, trade between the countries is a billon dollar a year business. The main thoroughfare is a low-lying highway that passes next to the lakes.

When Antonio Perera arrived in Haiti in 2008 with the U.N. Environmental Program, he would drive this highway between the countries nearly every weekend. "The first time I crossed was a nightmare," he recalls. "The road was under the water, 20 or 30 centimeters below. You have to look not to lose the water or else you will fall into the lake." On one trip an SUV in front of him toppled in.

Over the years, the water flooded customs and immigration buildings at border checkpoints, including one that was submerged two years after it was built. "I remember one building, it was a two-story house—it became a one-story house," he says.

Often, the water would flood the twice-weekly market at the border crossing, forcing hundreds of vendors to carry the food, clothes and other items they sold through a narrow, overcrowded strip of land. Perera says that on several occasions, the U.N. peacekeeping operation in Haiti piled gravel on top of the road to raise it above the water level, only to see it disappear underwater once again.

In 2008 Perera dispatched a team to survey Haitians affected by Lake Azuéi and to review existing research into its causes. "I remember the estimation of the land that was flooded in Azuéi was around 15,000 hectares [about 6,000 acres] of agricultural land. That's a lot in Haiti," Perera says. "This is a phenomenon that cannot be stopped."

He says Haitian farmers "were in desperation." "They had to go to other places they could cultivate. So you can imagine, they went to private land," he adds, explaining that spurred conflict between farmers and landowners.

Michael Piasecki, professor for water resources engineering at the City College of New York who has done research in both countries on the island, says, "On the Dominican side, people are a lot more vocal, a lot more demanding and willing to go out on the street and protest—at least to be loud enough for the government to do something." But in Haiti, he says, "There's a lot more resignation. We got the impression that the Haitian government isn't doing anything, literally, for the people, other than trying to keep that road above water level so that trade can continue."

Since Lake Azuéi flooded her home, Ata Pierre, 40, has lived with her daughter Jennifer in a home built by the charity Love a Child. Her husband died years ago, and she struggles to pay Jennifer's school fees.

In Haiti there has been "no aid for people being displaced, no idea of compensating them, of moving villages." The only relief has come from a Florida-based Christian charity called Love a Child, which gave homes to some of the Haitian families whose houses were lost to Lake Azuéi. Meanwhile, in the Dominican Republic, an entire town was built from scratch to house residents in danger.

Retreating to Higher Ground

An hour's drive east into the Dominican Republic, a hillside with hundreds of identical concrete-block houses painted in bright pastel colors overlooks the dark waters of Lake Enriquillo. This is the new Boca de Cachón, a $24 million community built by the government to house people on the verge of losing their homes to the lake.

One of them is Emilio Perez Nova, 48. Sitting on a plastic chair in front of the small army office he oversees, Perez finds the lake's rise difficult to fathom.

"You have to understand—when I was growing up, Boca de Cachón was not a lakeside town. The lake was a kilometer away!" Perez says.

He laments how he was forced to sell his cattle when water flooded the land they grazed. Relocated into a pop-up suburban community with no land to his name, Perez says he and hundreds of others here are struggling to earn a living.

"You can move to a new place, but life is not the same," Perez says, noting that many who moved used to have at least an acre or more to farm. "Imagine—you have seven, eight, nine tareas of land. And now you have nothing?"

The road between the new Boca de Cachón and the old one passes through a forest of dead trees. On a cloudy day, their tangled branches look gray and dark, giving one the eerie feeling of walking through a bombed-out no man's land. For years, a maze of hand-made fences demarked each family's property. Now all that's left are the tips of wooden fence posts poking up through the water.

Griselda Cuevas is 44, but her wrinkled skin makes her seem much older. Cuevas is one of only seven or so families, out of more than 500, who didn't move. She grew up farming maize, rice, and beans. Now, instead of growing them, she buys those crops from a nearby market and resells them.

There aren't many buyers. What just five years ago was a poor but bustling community is now a mostly uninhabited field of rubble with about a dozen houses. As a condition for accepting the new houses, the government destroyed the old ones.

Her husband, Martin Cuevas, 60, worries that the water might soon flood the house. "If you put a stick in the ground," he says, "water shoots out."

Turning to Charcoal to Make Ends Meet

At the center of the town of Duvergé on Lake Enriquillo's southern side is a park with a giant statue of an iguana. The small metal fence that surrounds the fake animal seems like a joke—until you look a bit closer and notice that the fence is actually there to pen in the dozens of very real iguanas crawling around the statue and living underneath it.

The iguana pen is a symbol of the pride the town's residents take in their wildlife. But now some of these residents say they have no choice but to destroy their precious ecosystem: Many looked to higher ground to make a living—to land that is unsuitable for farming but perfect for the illegal production of charcoal.

On an overcast morning in December, a small clearing in the shrubbery above Lake Enriquillo is scorched black—soot from a charcoal oven that once burned there. A few yards away, smoke billows out of tiny holes in a large mound of dirt—an active charcoal furnace. It smells of sharp, smoldering spices.

The perpetrator is probably someone like Demetrio, a round-faced Dominican who declined to provide his full name out of fear of prosecution. A farmer by trade, Demetrio remembers the wet morning in 2007 that found him scrambling to recover his employer's crops as they became engulfed by the lake's rise.

"We had to go carry out the sacks of juandules [lentils] with water up to our knees—rapido," he says. "The lake killed all the mango trees—they all died. Sugarcane too."

In the weeks that followed, "we were hungry," he says. "It was a big crisis. So we dedicated ourselves to charcoal. We had to live."

Demetrio knows that cutting down trees to make charcoal is bad for the environment. But he says there's little alternative. "We make charcoal only because we don't have any other way to live." Demetrio is one of 28 farmers on the lake's southern edge who recently found work planting and harvesting molondrones (okra) at a local cooperative, allowing them to leave the charcoal business, at least for now. "But if we lost our job today, you'd see all of us tomorrow out there making charcoal again."

Searching for an Explanation

Lake Enriquillo and Lake Azuéi have always been anomalies. For starters, their water is not fresh, but saline, even though they have no known connection to the ocean. Lake Enriquillo is the largest lake in the Caribbean, and it is also region's lowest point: in 2013 its surface was 112 feet below sea level.

"The topography is unfortunate," explains Piasecki. "Both lakes are flanked on the north and the southern side by steep mountains. It's like a bathtub."

In a tiny, windowless office in Santo Domingo, Yolanda León sits behind a desk piled high with books and reports. León is a professor at the Technological Institute of Santo Domingo and for years has been the leading researcher studying the lakes.

"Here it was chaos," León recalls of the many attempts to explain the lakes' dramatic rise. "Everybody had a hypothesis, and there was no data behind it."

One Dominican professor has been working to show that the 2010 earthquake had something to do with it, hypothesizing that it disrupted the underground aquifers. But that wouldn't explain why the water started rising in 2004.

Another Dominican professor hypothesizes that erosion from deforestation has caused mud to pile up on the bottom of the lake, displacing the water to higher levels. But León finds that hard to believe because there's little topsoil on these mountains to begin with.

She says locals tend to blame the rise on drainage from the vast web of canals that flush the land with freshwater. But that too seems implausible. "We visit a lot of these canals and they don't really reach the lake. The water is consumed by crops," explains León.

Complicating matters is the possibility that the two lakes are connected by an underground waterway. If true, Lake Azuéi, with its higher elevation, may be slowly draining into Lake Enriquillo. "But we can only speculate about this because we don't know what the water table actually looks like," says Piasecki. Absent funding that would allow scientists to drill the 40 to 50 boreholes he says would be necessary to find out if it's true, the subterranean river mystery will remain just that.

For its part, the Dominican government asserts that the crux of the problem is that too much water is reaching the lake from the Rio Yaque del Sur, the nation's second-longest river. But the Yaque doesn't feed directly into the lake. Instead, officials suggest that during times of heavy rainfall, such as tropical storms and hurricanes, the river unleashes high amounts of water into a small lagoon located about 15 miles southeast of Lake Enriquillo, and that from there water trickles down freshwater canals into the lake.

If true, the solution would be a simple matter of engineering: the river must be dammed. And that's precisely what the Dominican government is doing. In 2012, officials contracted to build a $401 million, 7.8 megawatt dam on the Yaque at Monte Grande. The reservoir will displace three communities. Luis Cuevas, a Dominican official working on the project, did not respond to requests for comment.

"Many people think that dam will solve the problem," says León. But she says there's no indication that more water has flowed down the Yaque recently than in years past, and no evidence that damming it will solve the problem of the lake.

To León, the most likely culprit is climate change.

"With climate change, the sea has risen in temperature. This creates more clouds," explains León. When clouds pass over the mountains that surround the lakes, they drop their load as rain. But León admits that because there haven't been weather stations to monitor rainfall, "we don't know for certain."

In 2012 and 2013, León and researchers at the City College of New York installed a handful of weather stations to monitor future rainfall and humidity. They also installed sensors at both lakes to measure daily changes in water levels, which they hope to compare to rainfall data.

Apart from a U.N. survey of Haitians affected by the lake, just one study has focused entirely on Haitian side. Produced in 2011 by EGIS International, an engineering firm controlled by the French government, it endorsed the notion that increased rainfall has led to Lake Azuéi's rise. It too speculated that climate change might be to blame.

Hoping for a Solution

If the water's rise could somehow be reversed, the sunken land could probably be restored to its original state.

Dalbes Garcia Borques, a landowner in Duvergé, says that about four of his acres have resurfaced in the last two years as the lake receded slightly. He paid some workers to dig small irrigation trenches from nearby canals to "wash" away the salt residue left by the lake. One year later, he's harvesting potatoes.

"It's an expensive and arduous process," says Borques.

And yet, it could be cause for optimism: If scientists and the island's governments could work together to reverse the lakes' rise, the land, barren and destroyed as it may look, could once again resemble the land that has not yet succumbed to the water's grasp—lush with palm trees and tall grasses upon which fat cows graze.

For now, farmers seem hesitant to invest in the labor it would take to wash the re-emerged land and replant. With no solution in sight, most expect the water will continue to rise—flooding even more of the limited land on this small island.



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