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The Roots of Cholera in Haiti: A Lack of Trees

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A recent cholera outbreak in Haiti can be blamed on many things: poor sanitation, the lingering effects of January's earthquake and inadequate medical care.

Here's one you may not have considered: Deforestation.

Over 98 percent of the country has been deforested by logging and improper environmental management. The resulting lack of biodiversity leads to impoverished soil, which is more susceptible to erosion. The eroded hillsides cause deadly mudslides during heavy rains and pollute drinking water. Farmers find it harder to grow nutritious food, and Haitians become malnourished, leaving them vulnerable to diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and cholera.

The chain of events moves forward with a cold logic; an unhealthy ecosystem results in unhealthy people. Fortunately, it can be reversed by planting trees through sustainable agro-forestry and following basic plant and soil management techniques.

As a training coordinator with Trees for the Future, a Maryland-based nonprofit, I have taught these techniques in Haiti and around the world for several years. We have proven that they work, but we need to do more. The first step is educating people -- in Haiti and in America-- about the importance of trees.

Often when I read comments on stories about efforts to restore degraded land in Haiti, I see people who make accusations that environmentalists care more about plants than we do about people. This could not be further from the truth: we plant trees so that we can help people.

Here's how it works.

As an island country in a tropical zone, Haiti is naturally subjected to heavy rains on a regular basis. Normally, trees and other plants help absorb the water and blunt the impact of the droplets on the soil with their broad leaves. The roots of the trees, meantime, help break up the soil, making it more hospitable to smaller plants that grow nearby. When there aren't enough trees, the soil becomes hard-packed, reducing its ability to absorb water during heavy rains. Hillsides become eroded, sending sediment into streams and lakes. Stagnant pools of water form that are havens for bacteria.

Haiti lacks reliable drinking water sources in many areas, so residents tend to rely on these contaminated streams, ponds and lakes for their water source. The bacteria that cause cholera and other diseases spread quickly as untreated diarrhea gets into water sources. The cycle of this degradation can be lessened however, by planting trees.

Even younger trees can help by absorbing rainwater and helping other plants grow. Tree planting can also be done in coordination with agricultural programs which help increase crop yields. The increase in vegetation on degraded land also acts as a natural filter for drinking water. In a short period of time, trees can help provide a community with cleaner water, more nutritious food and better protection during storms.

Trees not only help clean contaminated water, they help make it more accessible. Due to the actions of their root systems, trees help increase the water table, bringing drinking water closer to the surface. We can see the evidence plainly in Haiti. Streams that once flowed high enough 10 years ago and were used for drinking and bathing are now slow trickles due to deforestation in the highlands.

It is imperative that we begin planting trees now so that we can solve the problems of Haiti's future. The international community and the Haitian government need to work to develop an official countrywide reforestation campaign to plant new trees and protect existing ones as quickly as possible.

When we talk about minimizing the spread of diseases like cholera in Haiti and preventing future outbreaks, the role of tree planting and other agro-forestry initiatives needs to be part of the conversation.

Ethan Budiansky is head of Trees for the Future's Africa and Caribbean programs. Trees for the Future is a leading nonprofit organization providing economic opportunity and improving livelihoods worldwide through seed distribution and agroforestry training.