Friday, May 1, 2015

What does El Niño feel like?

A vegetable tire with wilted green pepper plants
 in Herve Delisma's yard. Photo by Herve Delisma.
I came home to my family in Barahona (Dominican Republic)Wednesday, April 29th, after about eleven days working in Haiti. The last four days of those, I was working in Papaye-Hinche. When I am in Papaye I stay with Herve Delisma and his family. I lived in Papaye full-time from 2004 through 2010 and into 2011, working with MPP's "The Road to Life Yard and Moringa project."  In 2012 I was given the opportunity by MPP and the Presbyterian Church (USA) to share yard garden ideas with other farmer organizations, including one in Léogâne (ODEPOL), one in Verettes (MRPST) and one in Gonaïves (MPB). Herve, usually known as "Tiga," became my assistant in that endeavor and in January 2014 he also became my host for the times when I am back in Papaye.

Tiga, his wife Keket and their two children, Kedou (a springy eight-year old boy) and Tália (a shyly mischievous 3 year-old), plus a long term guest, Gary (a reserved boy around 6 years-old) live in a community called Ti Do, in a three-room and large porch cement block house about twenty-five minutes from a source of potable water. They live a seven-minute walk from the nearest stream that normally provides the families around water for bathing, and in Tiga and Keket's case, water for their vegetable tires.

Tiga and his family. Behind, left to right: Kedou, Keket,
and Gary. In Front: young neighbor, Tiga and Talia.
Photo by Herve Delisma

I have a particular interest in Tiga and Keket's vegetable tires for two reasons. The first is that as my assistant in promoting the concept of yard gardens, I need Tiga to speak from his own experiences--from the realities that he and his family deal with as they apply the ideas they have learned to their own yard. I very much want Tiga and Keket to feel successful and encouraged by what they do. The second aspect of my interest comes from the fact that when I am at their homes, I try to provide some value to my presence by hauling the water for the tires. So in December and January, for example, every day that I was at their home, I took two of the family's jugs down to the stream ("Ravin Papay"), filled them with about 2 1/2 gallons of water each, and lugged them back to the house to water the tires. Those five gallons, with occasionally an additional 2 1/2, I was able to calculate, kept eleven vegetable tires, planted to cabbage, parsley and garlic chives, well watered. It took me twenty-five minutes to lug the water, counting the walking and the filling. It was a good feeling--providing useful labor and being part of the family's production system.

In March when I arrived, the cabbage was harvested and the tires were planted to Haitian spinach (amaranth) and green peppers, as well as the bit of parsley and the garlic chives. The problem was, the Papaye stream was gone. Dried up. First time in at least ten years, Keket told me, that the Papaye stream had dried up like that. She and Tiga had another source of water, though; there was a mud hole some where behind the house that provided enough water to keep the vegetables in the tires alive and producing.

It turns out the stream has a hidden life, though. My friend Lucien, from the same neighborhood, demonstrated to me that water still flowed under the surface. Lucien had dug out a hole in the stream bed close to his house that made that water accessible; he took me down there most mornings to collect enough water for each of us to bathe. Lucien and I each used almost a whole bucket to bathe--about five gallons each.

The hole Lucien dug out to access the Papay stream
that has gone underground. Photo by Herve Delisma.
 When I got to Tiga's home Friday, April 24th, though, I found the tires full of wilted vegetables. The amaranth had given the family a good crop, but Tiga and Keket had to abandon the plants before they could provide the seeds for the next planting. The mud hole had finished drying up, and even though Tiga had dug his own hole into the sub-surface Papaye stream, there were too many families depending on that water; Tiga and Keket just don't have time to wait an hour or so to get water for tires when they don't even have all the water they need for bathing. The holes in the stream have had to get deeper as well--about twice as deep as when I was there in March.

Tiga and Keket's wilted amaranth. The got one good crop from it before the lack of water forced them to let the plants go. Photo by Herve Delisma.
The source of potable water, for drinking and cooking, is also drying up. The source for that piped in water is set of springs about four miles up the mountain, outside of a set of communities globally known as the Bassin Zim zone. The series of reservoirs and pipes that brings the water down the mountains has had its good and bad moments ever since I moved to Papaye in 2004, but with recent improvements--at least one additional spring capped and added as a source to the system--most of us assumed the problem had been resolved.

None of us counted on the "El Niño" period that started this past October. "El Niño" is the warm end of a cycle of climate variability caused by changes in surface temperatures of the Pacific Ocean. The cool end of the cycle is called "La Niña." Although the focus of the changes in temperature are in the tropical belt of the Pacific Ocean, centered around the equator, the effects of the cycle are global. "El Niño," for example, may bring some hope to drought-stricken California. Often the rainfall increases dramatically in southern California during an "El Niño" cycle.

In Central America and the Caribbean, "El Niño" brings drought.

The last "El Niño" phase before the current one started in July 2009 and lasted through April 2010. In Haiti's case, it ended just in time for farmers to successfully plant extra corn and bean, bananas and yucca to help feed families flooding into the countryside from Port au Prince after the January 12th, 2010 earthquake. With two cycles of crops each year, one ending in July and the other in November, in 2010 most Haitian farmers were able to get two decent harvests and then again in 2011. 2011 had particularly good rains related to two short cycles of "La Niña." Check out this site: El Niño and La Niña cycles (El Niño and La Niña cycles) to see the data. Red numbers indicate periods that were hot and dry for Haiti (and Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic), blue indicates periods when the weather was cooler and wetter for the Caribbean and Central America.

In Haiti, the first crop cycle of 2014 was a "neutral" cycle with temperatures hovering around the "average." But many areas in Haiti still suffered drought and the farmers did not get good crops. The second crop cycle of the year, ending in November, ran hard into the beginning of the current "El Niño" phase. End of the year crops were poor throughout almost the whole country. Even more significantly, with less rainfall for the whole year, the underground water reserves are being drawn down with minimal recharge--i.e. still no heavy rains.

In Papaye, Haiti, and specifically in the small community of "Ti Do,"  El Niño feels hot and dusty and dry. It feels exhausting. Every morning I would go for a run and I would meet women and children, and sometime men, walking with gallons or buckets of water on their heads. "Where did you get the water?" I would ask. "A long way away," they would respond. Tiga and I were less exhausted. We had access to a truck that we used every evening to go up to MPP's training center, where we filled three or four 5-gallon containers and took them home. When the truck and I are not there, Tiga has a motorcycle he uses to carry two buckets at a time. Kedou and Tiga's adopted boy, Gary, use their time, too, at the scooped out water holes, filling their gallons with Papaye water to take home.

"El Niño" also feels complicated.

For four days, while I was at Tiga and Keket's home, I felt blessed to be part of people's lives, to be sharing the limitations they experience every day, adapting to those limitations with at least some measure of the grace that they demonstrate continuously. For example, I have always thought that 5 gallons was my personal limit for bathing--ten gallons a day with a bath in the AM and one in the PM. But living in a family of six, with exactly fifteen gallons of water between us for bathing, drinking and cooking, I was able to drop my limit to 3 gallons a day. And usually, after each bath, I had three or four cups worth left over to feed to the parsley or the garlic chives.

Yesterday Jenny, Keila and Annika and went to the beach. We live very near the ocean. The water was warm, much warmer than I remember it from other years. That could be, though, from looking too much at charts of ocean surface temperatures: Sea surface temperatures. In any case, it was a pleasant afternoon at the beach and we had a lot of fun. When we got home, I took Keila and Annika's sandals, and my water shoes to our laundry sink out back. I turned on a huge stream of water to wash off the sand from our footwear. That made me pause just a bit. Then I got in the shower and I turned on the water, and another huge stream of water poured out that I used to bathe and to wash out my bathing suit. When I was done, I realized that in less than fifteen minutes I had used enough water to bathe all of us at Tiga's house, twice.

The weird feeling that gives me, even right now as I write, is why I am sharing this blog.

But what exactly would I like to accomplish by sharing it? I would not like people who read this to feel pity for the folks living in Ti Do--I am sure of that. Rather, I would like this story to give people a sense of admiration for that community's toughness, and for their ability to share common resources with minimal friction, even when the resources are very limited.

Probably what I will most pray for is that somehow this contrast between those who have and those who don't could change your and my perspective on what may be our common responsibility for what is happening in Ti Do.

The most severe El Niño cycles recorded occurred in the last thirty years of the 20th century, in 72-73, again in 82-83 and then the very worst in 97-98. One article I worked my way through ( demonstrated that the El Niño phase of the cycle correspond consistently with the biggest jumps in the global temperatures. Historically, global temperatures that increase during El Niño phases are reversed during the La Niña phase. But not in the last fifty years. What went up, in terms of temperature, did not come back down. The Earth seems to be using the Niño/Niña cycle to process the increased energy that is being captured as we increase the CO2 in our atmosphere. That is not good news for Tiga and his vegetable tires.

So when you hear about Global Climate Change, think about what it means for all of us.

And please open your "all" to include the families in Ti Do.

In Christ,


A resident of the Ti Do/Saintville communities scraping out water from Lucien's water hole. Photo by Herve Delisma.

Check out this article from the online "Nature" for more information about the relationship between "El Niño" and Global Climate Change: El Niño and Global Climate Change

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