The ravines of Port-au-Prince represent for me a perfect distillation of adjectives about this city.
In the six months since I wrote the first edition of this post (for my own blog), and after having left Haiti to return to the United States, travel a bit in South America, and now back in Haiti, I see some notable changes in Haiti’s capital city: a (more) modern airport arrival experience greets the visitor. More public spaces are either accessible or are being improved. ‘Tent cities’, for better or worse for the residents, have been removed from their former and very prominent locations near the now-demolished Presidential Palace, the formal axes of the Champs de Mars – a vestige of colonial French planning – and other public spaces.
Ravines, however, despite some cosmetic efforts at community-led cleanups and municipal trash pickups, can still be counted on to belie both specific challenges and the broader challenges still facing Haiti: deep, (infra)structural, inherently tied to environment and ecology, and inextricably linked to the communities around them and the people who live there.
The ravine is both a set of specific challenges in an urban environment and a perfect analogy for what has occurred and still occurs in this country where people and environment intersect.
After walking through more than one ravine – places where many Haitians dump their trash, direct their bodily wastes, and all too often wash clothes and even retrieve their water, the last adjective above – ‘beautiful’ – seems particularly out-of-place.
Yet, as they say, there is much beauty in strangeness.
In the summer of 2012, while gathering feedback from the community for a project, I met a man who built his home – a fairly substantial reinforced-concrete roofed affair complete with toilet and rooms to rent – in a ravine 25 years ago. Just above the floodwater mark, his is a relatively safe and stable location, which many would view as illegal since currently in a no-build zone, as well as for the fact that most ravines are considered state land. Compared to many homes nearby which overlook concrete, concrete, and more concrete with smatterings of asphalt and the all-pervasive vehicular traffic, his existence seemed, by contrast, almost rural with views of red-flowered flamboyan trees, patiently munching goats, and the gentle sound of water.
A major problem with living in a ravine, however, is the negative amplification of seemingly natural processes.
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Port-au-Prince lies in a valley bounded to north and south by mountains, to the east the bay of Port-au-Prince, and to the west Lake Azuei and the Dominican Republic beyond. With vistas to the sea from multiple vantage points and views of ‘mountains beyond mountains’, the perfect confluence of geography, hydrology, and biological diversity, the region could be considered an unparalleled and ideal place… except for the city situated right in the middle.
A subject for future posts, suffice to say that Port-au-Prince tests every conceivable input or output common to cities, with its own special vibrancy and flavor.
But back to ravines.
The region roughly to the north-northwest of Route National #8, bisected by Route National #1 could be considered a floodplain at the foot of the Chaine des Matheux mountains. The southern portion of the Port-au-Prince watershed is formed by a nearer chain of mountains on which considerable parts of the city are built. Since unchecked development spurred by migration of rural populations to the cities following the departure of Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier in 1986, more of these hillsides have become densely packed with informal settlements filling in between the occasional elite hilltop aerie: Martissant, Villa Rosa, Jalousie.
Trickling waters flowing from higher up – agricultural areas above the towns of Kenscoff and Furcy largely stripped of trees since colonial times and more recently by cottage industries that collect charcoal for cooking – become torrents in the rainy season, flowing through communities on hillsides, and accumulating in low-lying areas, rising during periods of heavy rains to 3 meters (10 feet) or more in height of garbage-choked rushing rapids. Cars have been known to be washed away in these floods. Erosion, usually held in check in healthy watersheds by stable vegetation, is made progressively worse by the action of surface, rain, and drainage water, rendering banks of the ravine more prone to degradation and eventual collapse.
All along the way, people, of course, interact with water, and the paths along which it – and they – travel.
Next time, we will explore some responses to the complex challenges ravines present and how people are increasingly involved (or not), from simple canals and retaining walls to integrated communities along their banks.
Please stay tuned!
Note: Portions of this post were originally published as ‘The ravines of Port-au-Prince’ on June 10, 2012 at http://davehamptonjr.blogspot.com. This version is updated, revised, and -hopefully- much cooler.