Auntie Ruth is sad to say she’s been glued to the TV for the past week and a half as the catastrophic carnage in Haiti has unfolded. CNN’s Anderson Cooper was the first American journalist to arrive in Port-au-Prince after the earthquake, and Auntie was right there with him, albeit in her own living room. CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta arrived next, and Auntie was right there again as the journalist/doctor asked survivors such compelling questions as, “What’s the worst thing you’ve seen?” When we next saw Gupta, he was running through the rubble to save a 15-day-old baby! Then he ran off to save another Haitian child, or perhaps deliver a sermon on the evils of single-payer health care. Back in The Situation Room, Wolf Blitzer warned the audience to tune out if they find pictures of bodies piled up in mounds nauseating a split second before flashing the image on the screen. It was disaster porn at its finest.
As all of this was happening, Auntie got to wondering. What sort of long-term environmental impacts can be expected in the earthquake’s wake? Understand that even before the temblor, the U.S. Agency for International Development reported that Haiti “is suffering from a degree of environmental degradation almost without equal in the entire world.” Haiti’s exports include coffee, mangoes, sugar cane, rice, corn, sorghum, but that’s come at the expense of its forests, 96 percent of which have been cleared for agricultural purposes and fuel for heating and cooking in this desperately impoverished nation. The deforestation is bound to accelerate as the quake’s economic impact hits home.
Deforestation, the unregulated use of pesticides and decrepit infrastructure had already seriously degraded the Haitian watershed before the quake; USAID identified “densely populated Port-au-Prince—located in a coastal plain—as the country’s most environmentally vulnerable area” in this regard. Here, too, if China’s experience after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake is any indication, conditions promise to get worse in the long term as Haiti digs itself out and runoff from toxic waste and debris enters the watershed. That can’t be good news for 9 million Haitian survivors or the 21 species of mammals, birds and reptiles already on the endangered list there. At least 13 species have gone extinct since Europeans first arrived, including, aptly enough, the Haitian edible rat.