Communities and crops swallowed as Hispaniola lakes mysteriously swell
SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic, Wednesday September 19, 2012 — 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.
Neighboring Haiti is not much better off, with the smaller Lake Azuei having 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 kilometers) 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 the heavy rains of 2007 and 2008, and Tropical Storm Isaac didn’t help.
The 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.
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. Some 10,000 families have lost cattle, farmland or their homes as a result.
Heavy rains worsened the situation in Haiti last year and dozens of families were forced to evacuate. Many migrant labourers who cross into the Dominican Republic couldn't make the journey.
"It's a clear environmental disaster," said Antonio Perera, the Haiti country manager for the United Nations Environment Program. "It's happening slowly, slowly, slowly, and you won't see the immediate effects like an earthquake or hurricane."
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.
Scientists have speculated that massive deforestation on the Haiti side has caused sediment to fill the lake while trash clogs the drainage canals. Both lakes may also be spreading because of heavier than average rainfall in recent years.
Perera 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 kilometers), 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 kilometers, covering a Dominican customs office in brackish water.
Likewise, Enriquillo's shores have moved out by about three feet per year over the past 10 years, reaching 128 square miles (331 kilometers), 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.
Officials in the Dominican Republic have been sending food weekly to the poorest villages on the lake. They've also rebuilt water channels that were damaged in the 2007 and 2008 storm seasons. The Agriculture Ministry said it plans to relocate 500 families around the lake to give them fresh land for farming.
The Haitian government has laid gravel to elevate the road that leads to the southern border crossing, and Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe recently visited the area.
New environment minister, Jean-Vilmond Hilaire, said Haitian and Dominican officials were first trying to understand what was going on before coming up with a plan.