Haiti one year on: Neglect turns disaster to tragedy

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Almost a year ago today I stepped off a plane from New Zealand into the carnage of Haiti. I spent three months there immediately after the earthquake and saw first-hand the damage, which was absolute in parts of the capital, Port-au-Prince, and nearby towns.

About 188,000 buildings collapsed, which wiped out 230,000 lives and injured another 300,000.

Today impoverished Haiti in the Caribbean is still in turmoil. Some are incredulous at the perceived lack of progress.

Much has been done but much still needs to be done, and it's worth remembering that Haiti was the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere well before the earthquake brought it crashing down.

Today rubble fills Port-au-Prince, children bathe in open sewers, cholera is out of control and 1.3 million people who lost their homes a year ago still live in camps run by aid agencies such as World Vision, where I work as the humanitarian and emergency manager.

Only four months ago New Zealand faced a similar-sized earthquake. In fact, the Canterbury earthquake was even stronger - registering 7.1 as opposed to 7.0 in Haiti - yet if you live in Auckland you could be forgiven for thinking that everything is back to normal in Canterbury.

Only 2737 homes were deemed uninhabitable two weeks after the Canterbury quake and despite the massive shake-up no one died and only two people were seriously injured.

The situation in Haiti is worlds apart. Most of the buildings - including homes, schools, hospitals, commercial and public buildings - were all constructed out of home-made cement blocks with heavy concrete roofs and little or no steel reinforcing.

I saw multi-storey buildings, such as supermarkets and universities, lying flat-packed just a few feet off the ground, and it was sickening.

I would pick up pieces of shattered cement from the rubble and crumble them into dust in the palm of my hand.

I met a 10-year-old girl who had spent three days under the rubble of her home before passersby heard her crying. She lost both parents in the same house and now lives with her grandmother, who fears she will not live long enough to see the girl grow up.

Shockingly, officials in Haiti knew the capital would not withstand a significant shake. Nearly two years earlier a multi-storey school in Port-au-Prince had collapsed, killing 93 students.

The buildings in Haiti can only be described as silent time-bombs. One British-based engineering firm goes as far as to say that all remaining substandard buildings should be torn down and nothing should be rebuilt in Haiti until proper regulations are in place. Given that an earthquake could happen again and that hurricanes are an almost annual occurrence, one can hardly disagree, but with 1.3 million people still living in tents or under plastic sheets, this is untenable.

This in part answers why Haitians still languish in camps a year on with no obvious end in sight.

You might ask: "Can't aid agencies just re-write the building code, put up proper homes and close the camps?"

The simple answer is no.

If building standards are one problem in Haiti, land ownership is a far deeper, far more insidious one.

Eighty per cent of those affected by the earthquake have no land rights - they either rented or squatted before the earthquake, in many cases in flood-prone river valleys or crammed on to steep hillsides that were vulnerable to landslide.

The recent outbreak of cholera has highlighted the desperate sanitary environment in some camps. However, 83 per cent of the capital had no toilets before the earthquake and less than half the country's population had clean drinking water.

People lived in squalor, with few rights and highly vulnerable to disasters.

A United Nations expert on land issues told me recently that national land reform is usually a 25-year exercise. This is well beyond the scope of aid agencies that have a hard enough job at present supplying 1.3 million displaced people with basic services.

Meanwhile, the central Government lacks the capacity to sort out the issue. The Government itself lost 27 out of every 28 of their own buildings in the earthquake - and even if they did have the capacity, few Haitians believe they have the will to tackle the powerful landowners who control much of Port-au-Prince.

Haitian President Rene Preval effectively went into hiding for weeks after the quake. He knew his dysfunctional government, which had failed to enforce safe construction in the first place, was equally ill-equipped to make the legislative changes required to break up the large land holdings and undertake the long-overdue urban planning required to turn collapsed slums into liveable housing.

It's not surprising many in Haiti thought a New York rapper would do a better job as president.

I returned to Haiti in August to see how Kiwi funds were being spent. Despite the long-term difficulties, a huge amount had been achieved.

World Vision alone had provided food to 1.2 million people, emergency shelter for 41,000 families, delivered 16 million litres of clean water, installed 300 showers and 240 toilets in dozens of camps and were running health, education, child protection and livelihood programmes for tens of thousands of vulnerable children and affected adults.

World Vision and other aid agencies are meeting an enormous need and people were obviously far better off than they would have been without assistance.

The question now is how to assist people into more permanent solutions.

Disasters such as the Haiti earthquake are not natural, they are largely man-made. Earthquakes don't kill people - badly built houses collapsing is what kills people. Not only are earthquakes man-made, they are also predictable in the same way that starvation because of food shortages is predictable in Niger, or drowning in annual floods in Bangladesh, or the destruction of coastal communities in the Pacific because of sea-level rises, cyclones and tsunamis.

In each case, catastrophe is preventable and it is far easier and cheaper to reduce vulnerabilities ahead of time.

While New Zealand could not have predicted the Christchurch earthquake it did start more than 100 years ago to prepare itself physically and institutionally for such an event, ensuring that a disaster was largely avoided.

If we don't want to be in the same place next year in Haiti, or in years to come, then a multi-faceted response will need to be adopted. This is not going to be simple, but it's got be easier than instituting changes through tonnes of rubble and another round of displaced people after the next disaster.

- Ian McInnes is World Vision New Zealand's emergency manager.

- NZ Herald

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