Cries for help as Caribbean’s largest lake continues mysterious growth
SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic, Friday January 18, 2013 — Like something out of the X-Files, Lake Enriquillo in the Dominican Republic has doubled in size over the past eight years, submerging thousands of acres of farms and more than a dozen villages.
The rise of Enriquillo, the Caribbean’s largest lake, has flooded 16 communities in two provinces, more than 46,500 acres of agriculture land and 1,000 properties, according to a July study conducted by the Technological Institute of Santo Domingo and the NOAA CREST Centre of the City College of New York. At that time, some 10,000 families had lost cattle, farmland or their homes as a result.
Now, Cristobal town mayor Doglas Matos is demanding President Danilo Medina’s intervention to halt the misery he affirms Enriquillo’s unchecked flooding is causing.
Mayor Matos says that although Medina had shown willingness to help once he took office, "only good intentions are not enough."
"The past natural phenomena have affected this population’s agricultural production and reduced livestock pastureland, since the lake has swallowed nearly all farms," he said on Tuesday.
The mayor emphasised that emergency plans are needed to help farmers financially and technically in all locations near the lake, shared by Baoruco and Independence provinces.
Matos’ cry for help is shared by many in neighbouring Haiti, where the smaller Lake Azuei has also steadily expanded, destroying homes and farms as well as occasionally blocking a key cross-border highway and disrupting trade and travel.
The two lakes are only three miles (five kilometres) apart, are fed by some of the same streams, and share as yet undetermined factors that are swallowing surrounding areas at a relentless pace.
Regarded as “a slow-motion disaster”, the phenomenon is potentially catastrophic for two countries already burdened by environmental challenges. The waters' rise has increased exponentially in recent years, especially after heavy rains.
The exact cause remains a mystery, but theories as to why the lakes are swelling range from sediment and trash clogging the water system to increased rainfall from climate change and heavy storms. Some even speculate that Haiti’s 2010 earthquake may have shifted faults beneath both lakes.
Heavy rains have worsened the situation in Haiti and dozens of families have been forced to evacuate. Many migrant labourers who cross into the Dominican Republic have difficulty making the journey.
Last year, Antonio Perera, the Haiti country manager for the United Nations Environment Programme, described the situation as "a clear environmental disaster".
"It's happening slowly, slowly, slowly, and you won't see the immediate effects like an earthquake or hurricane," he said.
Researchers have suggested several factors that could have contributed to the rise of Enriquillo and Azuei, which both contain salt water because the low-lying region was once part of the ocean.
Perera has also suggested that Haiti's January 2010 earthquake may have somehow altered the hydrology of the area of both lakes, though water levels began rising years before then.
"Two or three days after the earthquake there were springs everywhere in Thomazeau," Perera said, referring to a lakefront town on the northern end of Azuei.
Lake Azuei has swelled outward by about three feet per year for the past decade, growing to 52 square miles (134 square kilometres) according to satellite images captured in the City College of New York study. It used to be only on the Haitian side but now extends across the border by one to two kilometres.
Likewise, Enriquillo's shores have moved out by about three feet per year over the past 10 years, reaching 128 square miles (331 kilometres), double its size in 2004.
The two lakes may even merge as the water levels rise. At present, they're separated by a road that often floods during heavy rainfall.
"The governments really need to get serious about this issue," said Jorge Gonzalez, a professor of mechanical engineering at City College of New York and the lead author of the July study. Click here to receive free news bulletins via email from Caribbean360. (View sample)