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The mysteries of Lake Enriquillo and Etang Saumatre (also called Lac Azuei) on the Island of Hispaniola continue to grow-as do the two lakes. Hispaniola, the most populous island in the Caribbean, holds the countries of Haiti and Dominican Republic. The lakes made news in 2012 because of their growing size, drowning nearby villages and threatening to merge into one lake. The twin lakes, one in each country, lie within the same geological basin called the Cul-De-Sac Plain. The eastern edge of Etang Saumatre in Haiti is the border between the two countries. Both are saltwater lakes. However, Lake Enriquillo in the Dominican Republic is saltier than the Caribbean Sea, while Etang Saumatre in Haiti has far less salinity.
Neither Lake Enriquillo nor Etang Saumatre has a natural outlet. Both lie in the rift valley formed by the Enriquillo-Plantain Garden fault that extends from Port-au-Prince Bay in Haiti to near Neiba Bay in the Dominican Republic. This fault was the cause of the catastrophic 2010 Haiti earthquake, and tremors are common in the area. The area of the fault is a former marine strait and holds several saltwater lakes. Parts of the valley are below sea level, including Lake Enriquillo, which is actually the lowest point in the Caribbean.
The two lakes have a history of growing and receding in relation to rainfall and evaporation. Lake levels can rise or fall nearly seven feet in response to heavy rains most years. Reports as far back as 1900 document this phenomenon, with some historical accounts reporting that the levels of both lakes had dropped since the time of Columbus 500 years ago. However, since 2003 the lakes have grown and have not receded as usual. This has been devastating to local subsistence farmers who cultivate the flat land around the privately-owned portions of Etang Saumatre shoreline. Lake Enriquillo is not used for irrigation due to the salt content, but Etang Saumatre is used as a limited irrigation source.
Fishing is not a true industry here, although government efforts stocked carp and tilapia in Etang Saumatre in 1954. Some fishing for subsistence needs occurs, often from shore. In recent years, over 1000 small farms and several villages have been flooded. Because the surrounding hillsides are too steep for farming, these displaced farmers have no place to go, resulting in even more impoverished families flooding into Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, less than 20 miles west of Etang Saumatre. World relief programs have begun feeding programs in both countries to help provide for the many displaced lakeshore residents.
The enlarged lakes are also a disaster for the many birds and animals that inhabit the wetlands surrounding the lakes. Both lakes host American crocodiles, which are not as affected as bird populations. Flamingos have suffered from the loss of mud flats, both at Etang Saumatre and Lake Enriquillo where the largest island served as a favored feeding area. Etang Saumatre has hosted over 100 species of birds, freshwater turtles, migrating waterfowl and wading birds, with many over-wintering here. The Lac Azuei Biosphere Reserve is planned but not yet developed.
The largest island on Lake Enriquillo is part of Isla Cabritos National Park, established in 1996. Once severely overgrazed by goats and cattle, the island as been allowed to regenerate into a wildlife refuge, home to one of the largest populations of American crocodiles on earth. Two species of iguanas and more than 60 different types of birds also live here. Boat tours can be arranged by park staff from near the village of La Descubierta on the northwest side of the lake. A road around Lake Enriquillo is still reported as passable, although there are several rough detours where water covers the road. Less than three miles separate the two lakes, so high water often means the road between the two lakes is flooded, making travel between the two countries difficult.
Haiti and Dominican Republic are very different economically. Dominican Republic is far more prosperous than its neighbor to the west with a thriving tourism industry along the Caribbean coast. Ecotourism is being encouraged here, and facilities for tourists are becoming more numerous. Haiti's economic problems run far deeper, and it will be years before this country can benefit from tourism in the unique natural regions around Etang Saumatre. Both countries and the world community are attempting to solve the problem of the rising water but having little success, primarily because water flowing into the lakes has no natural outlets.
The Cul-Se-Sac Plain is arid, almost desert-like due to the surrounding mountains blocking precipitation from the Caribbean. Seasonal rains and tropical storms that dump sporadic water on the area run off the mountains surrounding the lakes and sink into the soil, ultimately to reappear in springs bubbling up from the limestone rock. Some sedimentation has evidently affected lake levels but it is unclear how much. Historical aerial surveys show little change in watershed deforestation since the first surveys were performed in 1986, so deforestation alone cannot account for the increased water levels. Water balance studies show the lakes' levels are highly responsive to precipitation, and the past ten years have seen higher than normal rainfall. Temperatures have also been relatively moderate, causing less water loss through evaporation.
Historical elevation levels of the lakes show that both have lower elevations than shown in 1900; the 1900 survey showed Etang Saumatre at 65 feet above sea level. Currently the lake is only 49 feet above sea level. Lake Enriquillo shows a similar pattern, with 1900 records showing it at 111 feet below sea level, and now it is currently at 147 feet below sea level. Tectonic changes in the rift below the lakes are not well studied or understood. Reports from villages west of Etang Saumatre show springs beginning to appear in villages west of the lake after the 2010 earthquake. So, tectonic changes may also contribute to the increasing lake levels.
Although Dominican Republic is well-supplied with resorts and often served by cruise ships, Lake Enriquillo and Etang Saumatre are near few of the most popular tourist destinations. Most cruise destinations are located on the north and west coasts of the island. There are eco-resorts located in Barahona on the southern coast, however, which offer treks to the lakes and to the bio-reserves located in Dominican Republic. Some tourists arrive via Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, but travel accommodations may be more difficult to arrange unless one uses a reputable tourism agent with experience in the area. Travel in Haiti can be dangerous for the solitary traveler, so group travel is recommended. There don't appear to be any internationally-advertised accommodations on either lake at the present time, although a few local hotels appear on maps of the area. If you visit the lakes, bring the binoculars for viewing thousands of birds.
*Statistics listed are a composite of the most recent published measurements of both lakes and are likely outdated due to the rapid changes occurring
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