The Mysterious Rise of Two Caribbean Lakes

The tops of a few, concrete houses are all that remains of a Haitian village which flooded due to the rapid rise of Lake Azuei. /JACOB KUSHNER

In Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the lakes are flooding farmland, swallowing communities and leading to deforestation, baffling climate scientists.  

LETANT, Haiti—On a recent calm day, the surface of Lake Azuéi has no waves, not even any ripples. Pillars of pastel-colored concrete break the still surface, the tops of what once were houses. They are all that’s visible of the community that once thrived here.

Alberto Pierre, a skinny, wide-eyed 25-year-old, said the submerged village where he grew up wasn’t even near the lake. “The water used to be many kilometers from here.”

Lake Azuéi, the largest lake in Haiti, lies about 18 miles east of Port-au-Prince, the capital, nestled along the border with the Dominican Republic. Also known as Étang Saumâtre, the lake rose so much between 2004 and 2009 that it engulfed dozens of square miles.

“At first we put rocks so it wouldn’t come into our houses,” Pierre says. “But then the water just overran the rocks.” Families in the village of Letant began abandoning their houses, building huts on higher ground using wood, tarps, whatever they could find. By 2012, all 83 houses had been vacated.

“We don’t know why the water is rising,” he says.

In fact, nobody does. There seems to be no logic to the lake’s rise. Experts from the United Nations, a French engineering firm, a Dominican Republic university, a New York City college and many others have looked for clues to explain the rise of Lake Azuéi and neighboring Lake Enriquillo, just across the border in the Dominican Republic. But few of the theories seem to hold water. Some now hypothesize the phenomenon is related to climate change, but the evidence is counterintuitive: Unlike ocean levels, which rise with climate change, lakes tend to shrink.

Read the full feature story at National GeographicReporting for this article was made possible by support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.