"Water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink."
This is the paradox that faces Haitians with every heavy rain. Flash floods occur randomly; and when the country gets hit by hurricanes or tropical storms, whole villages - and thousands of lives - are washed away in a single moment.
Behind the flooding lies a vicious cycle of environmental devastation that includes deforestation, soil erosion, sinking water tables, pollution and an explosion of urban population.
In order to survive, peasants have cut Haiti's once great forests to make charcoal, which they use for cooking fuel. Without the trees and their roots, Haiti's hard rains simply wash the country's rich topsoil into the rivers and oceans.
According to the World Health Organization, roughly 98 percent of Haiti is now deforested. "The forests are state-owned, but the state is a bad manager and lets the peasants invade," said environmentalist Jean-Andre Victor.
This devastation, coupled with an ever-shrinking agricultural base, has helped to mire the country in poverty.
There is a saying in Creole, "Everyone has a handkerchief of land." The colloquialism refers to old Haitian land laws that systemically divide land among family members. Currently, Haitian farmers work an average of a just half an acre.
"Based on estimations, a family would need three acres to live normally," said Victor. "They are living on lands that are not economical."
As the rains wash down the mountains, soil clogs clean-running streams that feed lakes and springs. L'Etang Bois Neuf, a lake about an hour outside of Port-au-Prince, has completely disappeared, leaving a traditional fishing community to eke out a living by farming dusty patches of land. "I used to live well. I could send my kids to school. But now it is not possible," said former fisherman Alex Maislen.
Another victim of the soil erosion is the country's aquifers, or underground water sources. Aquifers are replenished through the absorption of rainwater, but without topsoil and trees, sufficient amounts of water cannot be absorbed, and much of the rainwater runs off into the sea.
"The aquifer is like a bank account -- when you have more going out than coming in, you have a deficit, and right now we have a deficit," explains Victor, referring to the ever-shrinking Port-au-Prince aquifer. Currently it is so low that a lack of pressure has begun to allow salt water to seep in. Victor estimates that in 10 to 15 years Port-au-Prince will have to tap into another aquifer farther away from the city.
Just as less water is coming into the aquifer, the demand for water is exploding, particularly in the urban centers. Fifty years ago, Port-au-Prince's 18 springs supplied clean water to a population of approximately 200,000. Today, the capital has an estimated 2.5 million residents -- nearly a third of Haiti's population -- giving the country one of the highest rates of urbanization in the world.
The increasingly rare water sources are becoming a magnet. People flock to the surrounding areas, and without a proper sewage system, the sources are soon contaminated, further lowering Haiti's standard of living.