people in a line

Dominican Republic closes border with Haiti over water rights dispute

​​​​​​​Tensions have escalated between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. The neighboring countries are now in a serious dispute over water rights. The Dominican government sealed the border and stopped issuing visas to all Haitian citizens until the dispute is resolved. 

The World

The Dominican Republic sealed its border with Haiti on Friday morning amid a dispute over the construction of a canal on Haitian soil that taps into a river shared by the two countries.

Dominican President Luis Abinader’s decision to shut all of the country’s land, air and sea traffic to Haitians represents an escalation of tensions between the two nations on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, which have a long history of complicated relations.

Diego Da Rin with the International Crisis Group warned that the border closure would isolate Haiti at a time when violent crime and hunger are both on the rise.

“This will clearly have very bad consequences economically in the Dominican Republic, and it will very likely worsen the humanitarian situation mostly in the areas close to the border,” he said.

The subject of the dispute is a canal off of the Massacre River. In 1929, the two countries agreed that they could both make equitable use of the water from the river as long as neither side altered its natural course.

In 2021, the Haitian Ministry of Agriculture began canal work in the country after a binational, technical group responsible for managing water resources from the Massacre River said the project did not violate the 1929 treaty. Construction halted later in 2021 after Haitian President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated.

But two weeks ago, a group of Haitian farmers took it upon themselves to restart construction of the canal on their side of the border, Da Rin explained: “The initiative is being spearheaded by various, local peasant groups who feel neglected by the government in the agricultural area of the Maribaroux plains in the northeast of Haiti.” 

Their reasons have to do with the fact that for years, the region has been facing severe drought, he said. Plantations have been deserted, the environment is desolate and animals are starving.

So, the farmers, tired of being ignored by government officials, came up with their own plan, Da Rin said. The citizens organized as a collective to resume work on the canal that would irrigate more than 7,400 acres of land.

Their actions enraged Dominican President Abinader, who, speaking to local media, called the canal an “inadequate construction without any type of engineering” and a “provocation that this government is not going to accept.”

He accused them of “diverting the river,” and claimed that Haitians hurt Dominican farmers and broke the 1929 agreement.

On Friday morning, Abinader deployed the military to enforce the border’s closure. The Dominican government also stopped issuing visas for all Haitian citizens until the dispute is resolved.

The Haitian government has said it didn’t authorize the canal project, but some officials argue that the canal is not in violation of the treaty.

On Wednesday, a delegation from Haiti traveled to Santo Domingo, the Dominican capital. But after 11 hours of negotiations, there was no apparent resolution.

Critics of the border closure say nationalist politicians in the Dominican Republic want to capitalize on anti-Haitian sentiment ahead of next year’s elections.

Da Rin called Abinader’s actions an overreaction and noted that he confirmed last month he is running for reelection, and appeared to be taking a tough stance on migration.

“Maybe Abinader thinks this is a way to portray himself as a strong nationalist leader who will be the only one … able to really stop the ‘Haitian invasion’ as he always calls the growing migration influx.”

And, closing Haiti’s only land border threatens to worsen the crisis in a country already on the verge of collapse. 

Ives-Marie Chanel, a Haitian businessman who lives close to where the canal is being constructed, said this decision will have negative economic consequences for both countries, but especially for Haiti.

Amid a deepening security and humanitarian crisis, many Haitians can’t find basic products in their own country, so they cross the border into the Dominican Republic to get them.

Many are also migrating to the neighboring country and rely on the airport there for international travel, according to Josué Gastelbondo, head of the mission of the International Organization for Migration in the Dominican Republic.

The Dominican’s closure is basically locking Haitians within their own country, he said.

Abinader has also pushed to limit the number of Haitians migrating to the Dominican Republic and has expelled tens of thousands of them and those of Haitian descent.

Ketia Bronté, coordinator for Haiti’s Support Group for Returnees and Refugees, noted that in August alone, some 22,000 Haitians were deported — twice the usual monthly number.

Her group and other human rights organizations have condemned the massive deportations of Haitians fleeing the country, including pregnant women and unaccompanied children.

She warned that more people are going to cross the border illegally and that the number of cases of human trafficking and contraband would likely increase.

“Haiti and the Dominican Republic are two nations whose history is intertwined,” she said. “Their destiny is linked to living together on an island.”

Despite the dispute, the Haitian farmers working on the canal show no signs of stopping. In the past few days, they sped up construction and have been working day and night to ensure that the canal is finished as soon as possible. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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