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Geopolitics

Three Years After Earthquake, Why So Much Of Haiti Still Lies In Ruins

Camps on Port-au-Prince's Champ de Mars
Camps on Port-au-Prince's Champ de Mars
Grégoire Allix

PORT-AU-PRINCE – What’s left of Haiti’s dreams of reconstruction? Three years after the earthquake that devastated the country – one of the world’s poorest – 360,000 people are still living in displaced person camps and shantytowns. The cholera epidemic is spreading and more than 80% of the population is still living below the poverty line.

This is “an indication that the policies applied by the Haitian authorities and international organizations that intervened massively in Haiti have so far largely failed,” the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) wrote in a highly critical report to be presented to Haitian authorities on Jan. 24.

Devastation

On Jan. 12, 2010, 4:53 P.M., a magnitude 7.0 earthquake devastated Port-au-Prince and its surroundings. Official buildings, hospitals, shantytowns, and apartment blocks made of bad concrete were destroyed within seconds. More than 250,000 were killed and 300,000 wounded while 1.3 million homeless people had to be relocated in emergency camps.

“Things are better. In three years, 77% of people have left the camps. In a country with so many structural issues, this is a pretty good result,” says Jean-Michel Vigreux, director of the Care NGO in Haiti. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), to compensate for the 250,000 homes that were destroyed, 6,500 slightly damaged houses were fixed, 4,500 new homes were built and over 100,000 transitional timber-based shelters were created.

According to the FIDH, this progress is just an illusion. “Very few long-term solutions have been offered,” says Genevieve Jacques. According to her, “the problem was just moved somewhere else, to be dealt with at another time.”

Many refugees left the camps after fixing their damaged homes themselves or building new shelters haphazardly. This has “contributed to the slum problem on the outskirts of towns.” “I saw very few real houses. The apartment buildings are even more precarious now than how they were before the earthquake, they are made of concrete blocks piled on top of each other over ruins,” says Genevieve Jacques.

“Temporary” camps

The so-called 16x6 flagship initiative is at the center of the Haitian relocation program. The program aims to resettle the residents of six large camps in their original 16 – rehabilitated – poor neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince. The volunteer families get a subsidy of 20,000 gourdes (around $500) to rent accommodation for a year or a $1,500 to $3,500 subsidy to repair or rebuild their own damaged homes.

The Haitians still living in one of the 496 camps in the Port-au-Prince region are “the most vulnerable, they're the ones who were renting before the catastrophe,” explains Genevieve Jacques. Their situation is getting worse by the day. After three seasons of rain and cyclones, the tarpaulin shelters and partially torn tents are in a sad state. Hurricane Sandy, on Oct. 24, helped turn these “temporary” camps into actual slums.

Unfortunately, the NGOs providing food, medical treatment, drinkable water and basic hygiene have already left or are about to leave, without anyone stepping in to replace them. The situation is ideal for the proliferation of cholera. Since the earthquake, about 7,800 people have already died because of this disease.

Evictions

Some of the camps’ population might leave in a more brutal manner – 20% of the refugees are being threatened with eviction from the private landowners, sometimes with the help of municipal authorities, according to the FIDH. Since July 2010, 65,000 Haitians have been evicted from their camps by force, leaving behind what little belongings they owned.

Is there any way this country can relocate its population faster? “A national program should be launched for the reconstruction and construction of social housing,” says the FIDH. Unfortunately, the Haitian government is historically very weak and doesn’t have the necessary funding. “The government has a limited capacity to act. We can’t expect much from the state; it just needs to establish standards, rules and a strategy. Nothing more,” says Jean-Michel Vigreux. “Who can afford an anti-seismic house?” asks Genevieve Jacques. “Standards are useless in the face of poverty.”

Today, the foreign aid is getting more and more scarce. The country and its foreign contributors are facing “a difficult transition between urgent disaster relief and long-term development,” analyzes Vigreux. After three years, the organizations specialized in disaster relief believe they have done what they came to do. The problem is, the country’s situation isn’t attractive for investors. And the influx of emergency funds “didn’t encourage Haitians to take charge of the reconstruction of their country,” regrets the FIDH. “The government, civil society and Haiti companies have been marginalized,” says Genevieve Jacques.

The day after the earthquake, Haitians and foreigners were talking of about the “rebirth” of a nation, instead of a reconstruction -- but it hasn’t yet begun.

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