The aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti is a powerful example of how the breakdown of a nation’s local food system and its reliance on food imports has made international trade and subsidies necessary year-round and has crippled the nation’s own disaster response.  It is also clear from the calamitous quake that the situation has been exacerbated because the nation is poor, has an inadequate infrastructure, and produces few cash crops of its own.  

haiti-relief-water.jpgPrior to the Jan.12 earthquake, Haiti was the most malnourished and poverty-stricken country in the western hemisphere, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization.  The destruction caused by the quake has caused further disparity, as basic needs such as a nutritious, safe meals and clean water are even more of a challenge to come by than before.

The infrastructure that once brought food and distributed it throughout the country is paralyzed.  
As few as thirty years ago, Haiti was a self-reliant nation from an agriculture perspective.  Now Haiti is dependent on important food, with half of the food supply being imported prior to the disaster.  There is a need for increased food production, agriculture rehabilitation, and reconstruction within the country that will take years, if not decades, to achieve.

In the long term there is a need for food sovereignty in Haiti, which would include laws to protect the arable land for agriculture from erosion and support local farmers.  The destruction and lack of crops will impact the entire Haitian population and increase malnourishment.

Without investment in infrastructure–roads, the airport, and shipping ports were all damaged in the earthquake–the movement of food throughout the country is limited.  More than one million Haitians may run away from the Port-au-Prince section for the countryside in search of food and clean water, which could further strain struggling farms.  With such a high demand of travel, however, bus fares and gas prices have increased, further straining the locals in suffering.

At least three million people are in need of aid.  According to the American Red Cross, thousands of meals have been distributed by the US military, and Red Cross volunteers plan to deliver clean drinking water to 200,000 people (17 settlements) each day by truck.  As of Jan. 21, over one million liters (approximately 265,000 gallons) of water had been distributed through the Red Cross; not nearly enough for 3 million people to survive on.  More water is needed.

During times like this it is significant just how easily broken but reliant we are.  When local food systems fail, the global community can step in and offer support.  For the poor, who knows how many will fall ill or die because they cannot access safe food or clean water.  The country has an immediate need, but it also needs to return to a state of self-sufficiency with respect to its food supply.

Photo:  A Haitian Red Cross volunteer helps distribute water.  Credit: American Red Cross/Talia Frenkel.  To find out more about the Red Cross response to the earthquake in Haiti, visit the Red Cross Disaster Online Newsroom