Lessons from a Disaster

Article excerpt

The earthquake that destroyed much of the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, in January brought one of the world's least developed nations to its knees. With work now under way to repair the damage, those involved in the reconstruction efforts are wondering whether the disaster offers a chance to rebuild the country for the better and whether broader lessons can be learned about how we respond to catastrophes in the future.

As you read this, the Caribbean hurricane season will be in full swing, with the potential to heap yet more misery on one of the world's most beleaguered nations. Storms and floods have wrecked Haiti in the past, but right now, it remains all but paralysed after an earthquake, registering 7.0 on the Richter scale, struck the capital, Port-au-Prince, on 12 January.

Emergency humanitarian relief work has acted as a life-support system for the past six months, but much of Haiti remains broken. Now, a new phase is gathering pace, the long-term planning for the arduous reconstruction of the country, a project that will stretch over several decades and bring together Haitians and the international community's engineers, planners, strategists and funders.

'In many ways, we are building from scratch,' says Albert R Ramdin, assistant secretary general for the Organization of American States (OAS). 'We are starting to build a country with few facilities--roads, airports, houses, medical facilities.'

Already the poorest nation in the Americas--the UN says 80 per cent of the population lives under the poverty line--Haiti's earthquake killed more than 250,000 people and left 300,000 injured; the Red Cross, Save the Children and other agencies are supplying food to 3.5 million people. Some reconstruction and clean-up work has begun, but 1.2 million people remain in spontaneous settlements. Even where schools have reopened, reports Tearfund, a quarter of children have stayed away.

'People are still dislocated,' says Nigel Timmins, Christian Aid's humanitarian programmes manager, who recently returned from Haiti. 'They are living in spontaneous camps, in camps out of town, or they've moved out of town altogether.' This has placed huge pressure on regional towns and rural areas--schools that once had 1S0 children now have 250, an extended family of eight living in one house may typically now have five additional mouths to feed.

In the immediate aftermath, the UN called for US$1.5billion in international aid (the UK Disasters Emergency Committee Haiti appeal raised 98million [pounds sterling]). But this sum will be dwarfed by the long-term, heavyweight funding required to rebuild Haiti, re-knit its economy and mend its communities. Key aspects of Haitian infrastructure and state functions--roads, bridges and administration buildings, and electricity, water and telephone systems--were obliterated. Such costs will come in somewhere between US$8.1billion and US$13.9billion, according to the Inter-American Development Bank. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has called for an aid package on the scale of the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe after the Second World War.

The reconstruction debate is now approaching a crossroads. Is Haiti to be rebuilt as it was, or is there an opportunity to alter the structure of the country?

STRATEGIC PILLARS

In an attempt to map out Haiti's future, the UN convened a major meeting in March of those Haitian agencies still functioning, the World Bank, the IMF and relief organisations to rake over the country's bare bones. They produced a post-disaster needs assessment, described as 'the cornerstone for recovery and reconstruction' by Doekle Geert Wielinga, senior disaster risk management officer with the World Bank. 'The assessment looks beyond the immediate humanitarian relief and more to the phase that follows,' says Wielinga. 'This is a visionary document that looks at the strategic pillars that Haiti will use for reconstruction and development in three-, five- and ten-year scenarios. …