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Drought Threatens Population in the Northwest of Haiti

By Amelie Baron

PORT-DE-PAIX, Haiti (Reuters) - Only cactus grows along the dirt road fringing arid fields on the way to the isolated village of Bas des Moustiques, on the outskirts of the northwestern city of Port-de-Paix in Haiti.

A lack of rain in recent months has killed crops in Haiti's poorest region, and left people struggling to survive.

Julia Sodietra, 41, has lost hope as she fights a losing battle to provide for her large family.

"When I want to buy some food, people refuse and insult me because I have not been able to pay my debts," said Sodietra, the mother of 11.

"I can't pay school fees anymore for my children," she added. "Even buying clothes and shoes is impossible for me. What I am going to say is horrible, but I would rather not have my children."

The drought follows two years of poor harvests in the region.

"I had a donkey that I used to transport coal, but it died because I could not buy food," said Charitable Yvner, 30.

"So I can no longer work and the little money I saved has run out. My four children are weak and cannot concentrate in school."

Historically, food has been sparse in northwestern Haiti, where chronic malnutrition is common among the young, stunting their physical and intellectual growth.

Now the drought is directly affecting an additional 143,000 people, say international relief experts, prompting a major emergency operation by the U.N.'s World Food Program.

"They are now in a terrible situation," said Georg-Friedrich Heymell, the Program's director in Haiti. "They cannot survive without support. The food we give them will help them for the next six weeks."

With a population of 11 million, Haiti ranked 161 among 187 countries in the United Nations Human Development Index in 2012.

"Three-quarters of Haitians live on less than $2 per day and half of the population earns less than $1 per day," the WFP says. "In rural areas, almost 90 percent live below the poverty level and basic social services are practically nonexistent."

Haiti has faced a food crisis for decades and international organizations have been financing humanitarian help for years, but even so the WFP forecasts are alarming.

"It's April, and the emergency stock we compose each year, thanks to the funding of Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States, France and Switzerland, is already exhausted," Heymell said.

"We need $5 million just to replenish the emergency stock before hurricane season (in June). Here we have an emergency today, but unfortunately I know it will not be the last crisis for 2014 in Haiti," he added.

With the international community focused on Central Africa and Syria, getting extra funding for humanitarian needs in Haiti is a big challenge, he said.

Time is running out, said Peter de Clercq, the Humanitarian coordinator for the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), who visited Bas des Moustiques recently to observe a food distribution program.

"Distributions are an indispensable aid, but it's only helping in the short term," he added. "Developing the economy, finding an alternative to agriculture, is essential. It will take time, time we do not have."

About 600,000 people in Haiti need food assistance, De Clercq estimated.

After receiving rice, beans, oil and salt, Yvner managed a weak smile. "This small food assistance is a sign of God," she said. "It won't last for more than a month but it's already something."

(Editing by David Adams, Kevin Gray and Clarence Fernandez)

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