Opinion: What aid workers can learn from the previous earthquake in Haiti

In dealing with the 2010 earthquake, much good work was done in Haiti by dedicated, selfless emergency responders but there were also some spectacular failures, says Professor David Alexander (UCL Institute for Risk & Disaster Reduction).

Only a few weeks after the Haiti earthquake, aid agencies on the ground are only starting to deal with the challenges. In doing so they need to apply the lessons they should have learned from the response to the previous catastrophic earthquake in January 2010.

At the end of August 2021, the death toll was between 2,200 and 2,500 people with a further 12,000 injured. More than 150 health facilities had been damaged, and 28 were out of use. About 150,000 homes had been wrecked and 650,000 people were in need of assistance. This is far less than in 2010, but is still another catastrophic situation for Haiti’s disaster response agencies. This latest earthquake also comes just a month after the assassination of Haiti’s president, Jovenel Moïse, by foreign mercenaries leaving the country in political turmoil.

Nobody knows how many casualties there were in Haiti in 2010: perhaps as many as 240,000 dead and 300,000 injured. As bodies piled up on street corners and in courtyards, there was no time to count them all. Some 1.6 million people were displaced from their homes, but the earthquake destroyed more than people and their homes - it dealt a near fatal blow to the government.

The 2010 earthquake occurred after one of Haiti’s all-too-regular periods of instability, caused by disputed elections and a revolt that had led to the ousting of then president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, six years earlier. UN troops attempted to bring peace and stability and in 2006 and 2007 they worked with local gangs to move them away from armed violence to jobs. Their work was abruptly undone in the chaos that followed the 2010 disaster.

Back in 2010, 130 countries sent personnel, materials and supplies to Haiti. It was a useful moment to take stock of whether the international disaster relief community was applying the lessons it was supposed to have learned in decades of dealing with other natural disasters such as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. These include the need to ensure the continued provision of food, water and sanitation, the construction of shelter compatible with local needs, involving the local population in recovery decisions and supporting the continuity of government.

In dealing with the 2010 earthquake, much good work was done in Haiti by dedicated, selfless emergency responders, particularly in medical assistance and search and rescue. Nevertheless, there were some spectacular failures.

In the six months after the 2010 disaster, only two-thirds of the US$1.4 billion (£1 billion) requested in the UN’s flash appeal had been pledged, and a significant proportion of what was offered was never paid. Rumours circulated that 80% of the monetary aid supplied to Haiti found its way back to the donor countries, largely because much of the cost of the relief effort was absorbed by firms and workers from the donor countries.

This is impossible to substantiate, but goods manufactured in a donor country, brought to Haiti by transport from that country and distributed by personnel from the same country, would do little to stimulate the Haitian economy. In his book about the earthquake, Harvard medical doctor, Paul Farmer, noted that only 3.8% of monetary relief went to the Haitian government, and yet that is exactly where responsibility for public services and safety lay.

In addition, an international scandal later emerged as various media organisations reported that minors were offered food and small amounts of cash to have sex with UN personnel.

In 2010, some relief organisations promised to build shelters for the homeless but many were not delivered, with agencies accused of being shambolic and wasteful.

Shelter may be innovative or inspiring to an architect from a highly developed country, but it could equally be impractical to the potential user. Architect Ian Davis published well-chosen exposés of post-disaster housing on this theme. As aid agencies work with earthquake-devastated Haitians during the current disaster, providing appropriate shelter should be at the forefront of their minds. In 2010, agencies imported transitional housing that was expensive, technologically complex and very different to what Haitians were used to living in.

Although there are good examples of practical post-disaster housing in Haiti, there is also the usual depressing round of wacky ideas and so-called "innovative" shelters that are as costly as they are impractical. Good shelter must take account of the need to involve - and pay - local labour, cater for people’s needs, respect their traditions, and not impose on them outlandish ideas that they are likely to reject for both cultural and practical reasons.

Natural disasters have left Haiti struggling with many different legacies. A massive earthquake affects the country about once every 60 years, but at irregular intervals. Some have caused tsunamis, including the latest one, although fortunately the waves were small. Neglect of seismic safety is bound to be fatal, but in 2010 Haiti had no building codes and it still lacks a means of enforcing them. Buildings often go up without permits and inspections are few.

Significant tropical storms and hurricanes strike Haiti on average once every 18 months, but their effect is difficult to predict. For example, in the 2008 hurricane season, four big storms arrived. About 140,000 Haitians displaced by Hurricane Matthew in 2016 still need shelter, and they are joined by thousands of others displaced by Hurricane Grace in 2021.

Both flooding and soil erosion, caused by earthquakes, are worsened by decades of deforestation that have denuded slopes of the kind of vegetation that would retain moisture and soil cover. Various agroforestry projects are getting to grips with this, but progress is agonisingly slow.

Even outside the earthquake crisis food shortages are prevalent, a third of the Haitian population lacks secure access to food. In mid-2021, 40 districts are enduring a crisis of food availability, and 130,000 children are suffering from acute malnutrition. With the damage they cause to agriculture and the food chain, the intensification of storms, floods and erosion by climate change is much to be feared.

This article first appeared in The Conversation on 9th September 2021.