This desolate farming town in Haiti's central plateau sits on the banks of the Artibonite River, the nation's largest waterway and an ideal source for irrigating fields of rice and black beans. And nature has been working in Domond's favor over the last several years, dumping bountiful rains across a normally arid region.

But all the water remains frustratingly elusive to farmers like Pierre Valcin. They lack the knowledge and equipment to capture the rain on their hillside plots or tap the river to irrigate low-lying areas to grow enough cash crops and ease the grinding poverty in which they live.

"You could say we are drowning without water," Valcin, 67, recently lamented.

The hardships endured by Domond are felt in countless other villages across this predominantly agrarian country of 7.6 million people, disappointing hopes that were raised when an international contingent led by 20,000 troops, mostly Americans, arrived here five years ago to remove a military dictatorship and reinstate Haiti's first democratically elected president.

The intervention brought with it the promise of rural development and a better life for the more than 5 million inhabitants who reside in isolated squalor throughout the countryside, the poorest segment of the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. But a protracted political crisis disrupting the flow of badly needed foreign assistance, coupled with the magnitude of the social, economic and environmental problems that have long plagued Haiti's farmers, have proven to be overwhelming obstacles.

"There has been no agricultural progress here. It has been very degrading for us," said Jean-Louis Desir, a Domond church official. "This place has no future."

The U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) has spent more than $300 million over the last five years on rural initiatives including vaccinations for children, distribution of contraceptives, school food projects, small loans for entrepreneurs, development of local courts and a hillside agricultural program that last year boosted very low incomes for about 166,000 farmers by 17 percent.

But, said AID's director in Haiti, Phyllis Forbes, "All the improvements are resting on a feather and they could be blown away with a strong wind." She added, "There are so many needs in this country that we have had to spread our assistance thinly over many sectors. . . . It will take Haiti a generation to create a population that can meet the challenges of a modern economy."

Amid the misery has come some progress. Haiti's agricultural sector grew by 2.1 percent in 1998; it was expected to expand by 4 percent had Haiti not suffered the ravages of Hurricane George last year.

AID has seen significant results in a number of its rural initiatives, which have included teaching Haiti's poorest farmers environmentally sound agricultural practices such as fruit tree grafting and cultivating high value export crops such as cocoa, coffee, mangoes and manioc.

Farmers also planted or improved through grafting 6.8 million trees last year. Meanwhile, 200 miles of roads have been built around the countryside and others have been repaired as part of an effort to improve the flow of commerce.

But AID and other foreign donors point out that the assistance specifically designated for improving agriculture and addressing environmental devastation has been severely inadequate. "The agricultural and environmental sectors are woefully underfunded by all donors, including USAID," the agency stated in an annual report on Haiti earlier this year.

The report noted that both sectors received a total of 15 percent of donor disbursements in 1998, with only 5 percent going directly to agriculture. But officials said there are other priorities for revitalizing Haiti and that they indirectly have a bearing on agricultural development.

One of the problems confronting Haitian farmers is the fact that land reform, which President Rene Preval has said is a top priority, remains largely unresolved. Peasants in many rural areas have routinely clashed with landowners who obtained or increased holdings by driving peasants off property during the three decades of dictatorship under the Duvalier family.

The Preval government has distributed some small parcels to peasants, largely in the Artibonite River Valley. But disputes over property titles are numerous.

Most rural Haitians have access to land but their holdings are not large or fertile enough to support farming. Aid experts say families need a minimum of just over six acres to make a living from agriculture, but the vast majority of farms are about three acres, and even those properties are often carved up into smaller plots.

Furthermore, outdated legal restrictions on the use of land as collateral and an arduous land titling process have made it almost impossible for farmers with property to obtain mortgages to modernize or expand in a country that produces only 50 percent of its food requirements.

Another serious problem has been the decrepit condition of most roads in the countryside and the crude methods of transportation that farmers must rely on to get their products to market. It is estimated that up to 30 percent of grain harvests is lost while being transported and more than 40 percent of fruits and vegetables either are damaged or fall off trucks.

Overall, 75 percent of rural Haitian families live below the poverty line, which experts define as having to spend more than three-quarters of their income for each member to eat at least 2,250 calories a day.

Colossal deforestation also has been a major obstacle to developing more fruitful agriculture, as increasing numbers of farmers seek alternative sources of income by chopping down trees to meet the demand for construction supplies and charcoal for cooking. Consequently, only 1.5 percent of Haiti's natural forest remains intact. Officials estimate that 15,000 acres of topsoil are washed away by rain each year because of the dearth of natural buffers once provided by trees.

Most of the cultivated land in this mountainous nation is on steep hillsides that have been eroded by rainfall. Making matters worse, only about 19 percent of Haiti's land can be irrigated from rivers, lakes or underground water supplies, but less than half of that actually is irrigated.

In Domond, a town of creaky shacks and a few crumbling brick buildings 25 miles northeast of Port-au-Prince, Tiyoute Vertus pointed to the orange streaks in her granddaughter's hair, a symptom of vitamin deficiency and a sign of their struggle to survive on a small piece of land where they grow okra and yams. Earlier this year, Vertus, who appeared to be in her early fifties, started selling wood and making straw hats and brooms to provide more food for herself and the young child.

"Life is painful, but we are living under the protection of God. Otherwise, I think we would be dead because no one else seems to know we exist out here," she said.

Travails like these have driven large numbers of people to flock to the cities in search of greater opportunities, creating overcrowding problems and straining limited resources.

In the chaotic capital of Port-au-Prince, the population has been ballooning at a rate of 120,000 people a year and currently stands at about 2.5 million.

Several critical indicators show that living conditions in the city are only slightly better than in the countryside. For instance, chronic malnutrition in children under 5 is 20 percent in the metropolitan area, compared with 35 percent in rural zones.

Haiti at a Glance

Population

* 7.6 million

* Projected population 2025: 11.4 million

* Rural: 64%

Quality of life

* Life expectancy: 51 years for men; 56 for women

* Illiteracy: 52% for men; 57% for women

* Income: $410 a year per person

* Population below national poverty line: 65% total; 81% in rural areas.

* Population with access to safe water: 39%

* Population with access to sanitation: 26%

Economy

* Gross domestic product: $2.8 billion; 31% from agriculture,

* 20% from industry, 48% from services.

SOURCE: World Bank

CAPTION: Farmers in Domond--and elsewhere in rural Haiti--live in squalor and have prospered little despite aid from the United States and other countries.