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On August 14, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti leaving more than 1,200 people dead and more than 5,700 wounded. The impact was disastrous in every aspect, with the destruction of many buildings including houses, schools, hospitals, and churches, as well as the displacement of thousands of people. To make matters worse, three days later Tropical Storm Grace hit the country, bringing heavy rains and mudslides into the already affected area. This worsened the impact of the earthquake, leaving no time for rescue and recovery.
The country was left completely devastated and unable to react, with hospitals incapable of treating the survivors due to poor infrastructure and the impact of the earthquake. The urgent need for medicine, food, water, and shelter activated international aid and support from all over the world, but inaccessible roads and collapsed bridges complicated aid, preventing people from reaching the most remote areas.
These natural disasters contributed to the already precarious situation in Haiti. To truly understand the situation, we have to go deeper and investigate Haiti’s pre-existing vulnerabilities, which include environmental, political, economic, and social factors.
HAITI’S NATIONAL OUTLOOK
Considering the political situation, Haiti is now in the middle of a crisis, culminating in the recent assassination of President Jovenel Moïse one month before the earthquake. Haiti’s political instability is historic. Crime and insecurity are norms, with multiple armed gangs alternating between outwardly opposing and infiltrating into the government. Endemic corruption and incompetence have consistently characterized the national government, and the Moïse administration was no exception. The recent assassination has reinforced this condition, leaving the country in an institutional vacuum lacking authority.
The economic situation is no better. Once the wealthiest colony in the Americas, Haiti is now the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country, amplified by economic stagnation, debt, and dependence on international aid. The 2019 economic downturn, which resulted in a lack of basic services such as food, water, and fuel, has left 59% of the population under the poverty line, 24% of which are in extreme poverty. Recent events such as popular protests, a presidential assassination, and natural disasters have placed further pressure on the country’s economy.
One of the most serious results of Haiti’s economic stress and extreme poverty is poor health. The population suffers from poor health conditions due to malnutrition, poor hygiene, and lack of basic necessities. Moreover, public health lacks essential supplies, infrastructure, and personnel. The healthcare system is constantly impacted by natural disasters making it nearly impossible for it to ever fully recover, COVID-19 has dealt a significant blow as well, pushing hospitals that were unprepared to fight the pandemic to the verge of collapse and leaving the population particularly vulnerable to the virus.
HAITI’S ENVIRONMENTAL VULNERABILITY
Besides general instability and poverty, Haiti has been even more negatively impacted by its natural environment. Some call it the “Haitian Curse“; located along a geological fault line and in a region exposed to severe weather, Haiti is extremely vulnerable to natural hazards, especially floods, droughts, earthquakes, and hurricanes. The history of earthquakes goes back to the 18th century, with the first big earthquake reported in 1751. On top of its vulnerability to earthquakes, climate change is also putting the region under further stress by causing extreme weather events to become more frequent and intense.
All of this is worsened by the limited preparedness and poor economic conditions of the country. Poorly planned urbanization contributes to environmental vulnerability, with a large portion of the poorer segments of Haiti’s population creating settlements in illegal, disaster-prone areas. When natural hazards occur, the weak infrastructure does not stand. If the state does not invest in mitigation and prevention, the “Haitian Curse” will continue to bring pain to the country.
FROM 2010 TO 2021: WHAT IS DIFFERENT AND WHAT IS THE LESSON?
Considering the previous earthquake that occurred in 2010, which left a profound mark on Haiti, it is useful to make a comparison to understand what has changed and what the former disaster taught the country.
In terms of intensity, the recent earthquake was 0.2 stronger than the one in 2010, which was a 7.0 magnitude earthquake. Despite this, the consequences for the environment and population were much more drastic in 2010, with 220,000 dead, 300,000 injured, thousands of buildings collapsed, and more than 1 million people displaced. This is mainly due to the difference in location. While the 2010 earthquake struck the capital of Port Au Prince, this recent one struck Haiti’s southwest Tiburon Peninsula, which is more rural and less densely populated.
But even if this earthquake was better in terms of location and intensity, the 2021 earthquake put a strain on the still-open wounds of the previous one, from which the country has yet to fully recover. Clearly, the outcome of a natural hazard is not only characterized by its environmental features. The disaster resilience of Haiti correlates with a given natural hazard’s outcome, with less intense events causing more intense consequences and vice-versa. Two main mistakes were made during this intermediate time: not only has the population been left alone, unable to recover from the last earthquake, but the state has not learned from the 2010 earthquake, making no relevant investment in emergency planning or infrastructure standards. Moreover, the worsening of the current political and economic situation plays a role in the effects of the 2021 earthquake.
The historical experience of natural hazards can be used constructively by a country, teaching it to increase its preparedness in terms of disaster mitigation and risk prevention. This is the case in Japan, whose historical exposure to strong earthquakes has resulted in a push for investment in resilient infrastructure and high-speed recovery measures, making earthquakes not as much of a threat to the country. For Haiti, this is not the case. The political instability and economic stagnation did not allow the country to invest in resilience against constantly occurring natural disasters.
As we understand, every aspect of Haiti’s vulnerability is linked, and each of them worsens the other. Environmental harshness reduces the already poor health and economic status of the population. This, in turn, hinders the country’s ability to mitigate, anticipate, and prepare for environmental disasters. Therefore, it would be limited and misconceiving to link the precarious conditions of Haitians exclusively to the recent earthquake. This is a product of a historical evolution that involves political, economic, and social components, as well as the “Haitian environmental curse” that contributes to the country’s deterioration.
- Considering the authoritarian gap, will the state be able to assist Haiti’s population in recovering from the recent earthquake?
- What can we expect from the international community, in terms of humanitarian aid and asylum assistance?
- Considering its constant exposure to extreme environmental events, will Haiti be able to invest in a long-term system for disaster mitigation and prevention?
Tom Phillips. “Il terremoto infierisce sulla miseria di Haiti.” Internazionale. 16 August 2021.
Jaclyn Diaz. “Why Earthquakes In Haiti Are So Catastrophic.” Npr. 16 August 2021.
Singh, Raju Jan and Mary Barton-Dock. 2015. Haiti: Toward a New Narrative. Systematic Country Diagnostic. Washington, DC: World Bank.