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Geopolitics

Four Years After The Earthquake, Haiti Looks To The Sun

A solar-powered hospital offers a glimmer of hope in a country still mired in poverty, and the after-effects of the massive 2010 earthquake.

Working on the roof of the University Hospital of Mirebalais
Working on the roof of the University Hospital of Mirebalais
Jean-Michel Caroit

MIREBALAIS — Four years after the earthquake that killed more than 220,000 people and continues to weigh on one of the poorest countries in the world, the University Hospital of Mirebalais has become the symbol of what could be regarded as a “happy” reconstruction of Haiti.

Mirebalais, just outside the capital of Port-au-Prince, opened in May 2013 and is the world’s largest solar-powered hospital, according to the groups Partners in Health (American) and Zanmi Lasanté (Haitian) that built the facility and manage it with the Haitian Health Ministry. The 300-bed hospital, which uses advanced equipment in its emergency and neonatal care units, has some 1,800 solar panels that produce enough energy for all the building’s needs. The surplus is redistributed by the national grid.

The hospital was conceived in 2009, and at the time it was envisioned as a small health center for Mirebalais, a town of just over 15,000 inhabitants. But after the earthquake, the government requested the project be expanded into a regional hospital and training center for doctors and nurses.

The $25 million project was nurtured by the connections and experience of Dr. Paul Farmer, founder of Partners in Health and a close friend of Bill Clinton’s. He managed to convince many to help fund the project. Artists for Haiti, a foundation created by actor Ben Stiller, raised $2.7 million, while the American Red Cross contributed $5.5 million.

When Bill Clinton, who had been appointed the UN’s special envoy to Haiti, visited the construction site in March 2012, he underlined “the extraordinary potential of solar energy to better rebuild Haiti.” But this potential hasn’t been as celebrated as it should be, even though “rebuild better” was the catchphrase after the earthquake.

Wood and wood coal are still the main sources of energy in Haiti, and have largely contributed to the deforestation of the country despite recommendations to develop renewable energies. Solar energy is particularly needed in this tropical country where less than 25% of the population has access to electricity.

And there have been some successes. In the year that followed the earthquake, several NGOs and international organizations distributed more than 50,000 solar lamps. Private hospitals, orphanages and fish farms were equipped with solar material thanks to the Solar Electric Light Fund, an American group that received funding from the Inter-American Development Bank.

In addition, the Knowledge and Freedom Foundation (FOKAL), created by Haiti’s former Prime Minister Michèle Pierre-Louis, equipped several schools with solar panels. To combat against assaults and rapes, solar street lamps were even installed in the many camps that today are still home to 146,000 to 170,000 victims.

But this is far from enough. A year ago, Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe promised that the state-owned company Electricité d’Haiti (EDH) would be able to supply energy to the people of Haiti 24/7. But instead of improving, the supply of electricity has in fact worsened because of the financial and technical difficulties that EDH is facing. Power shortages became frequent during the holiday period. The solar-powered traffic lights in the capital stopped working, and as a result, the usual traffic jams grew even bigger. Entangled in a dispute with the administration, private company Axxium stopped carrying out maintenance.

“There’s no policy that encourages alternative energy,” laments Jean-Jacques Sylvain, who co-founded Green Energy — a company that sells and installs solar equipment. “The government doesn’t support solar investments. There’s no tax incentive, and we have to pay between 30% and 40% tax on the equipment that we import.”

In the meantime, Mirebalais looks like a glimmer of hope.

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