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Dominican Republic: The waters are rising... and no one knows why


Tomorrow is market day, so today huge lorries, trucks and brightly painted tap taps (buses) are assembling at the Haitian-Dominican border at Mal Paso, outside Jimaní, their goods piled high in anticipation of making a profitable sale. The vendors have a problem, though. The area they use on the Haitian side of the border is now under water, while all that is left on the Dominican side is a minuscule patch barely larger than the  width of the road. Flood water laps against abandoned warehouses and covers some of the road, which has been reinforced and raised once already.

The cause of the flooding is a mystery. Scientists have yet to determine why the levels of three salt-water lakes in the area have been rising for the past five years or so, and the governments are at a loss for what to do. Farmers’ livelihoods have been wiped out, their fields and orchards destroyed by salinity, while roads, houses and other infrastructure have been inundated.

The largest lake, Lago Enriquillo, used to cover an area of less than 200sq km in 2004 and its waters, three times saltier than the sea, were 30m below sea level. By 2011, it was 350sq km – and it hasn’t stopped growing. A couple of small islands, Barbarita and La Islita, have disappeared, as have the flamingos, for lack of beaches to wade from. Crocodiles, on the other hand, are reported to be finding it much easier to steal goats and sheep from their shrinking pasture.

Once linked to the bays of Port-au-Prince and Neiba, the lake was cut off from the sea by tectonic movements a million years ago, along with its neighbours: Soumâtre in Haiti and Rincón (Cabral) in the Dominican Republic. You can still see coral and shells embedded in the hillsides, left behind after the land rose and the sea fell away. Is that movement now being reversed?

Until someone comes up with some answers, the Dominicans are moving their roads further uphill. The bi-national market is a lifeline for many, but a few pesos’ profit from selling goods goes nowhere to replace a flooded crop of yucca. As we drive away, our vehicle making waves in the contaminated water, I wonder whether the market will still be there next time I visit.

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