As the horrific death toll in Haiti has so tragically demonstrated, the primary defense against earthquakes is to have buildings strong enough to withstand their destructive force. It is estimated that at least 150,000 Haitians perished in the magnitude-7.0 temblor and aftershocks that flattened much of Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas on Jan. 12, and it is feared the final death toll will be significantly higher. The vast majority of victims died inside buildings that turned into death traps as they collapsed.
One of the world’s most impoverished nations, Haiti has no national building codes and most of its structures were not built to withstand earthquakes. Because wood is scarce in Haiti, most buildings there are constructed of unreinforced cinder blocks and bricks, which have much lower resistance to earthquakes than wood- or steel-framed structures. They have a tendency to break and crumble rather than bend when struck by strong seismic forces. Shacks made of sheet metal, commonplace in Haiti, also fare very poorly in earthquakes.
Making matters worse, the cinder blocks used in Haiti are often made of substandard materials. Grinding poverty and a lack of building codes make it all too tempting for building material manufacturers to save money by lessening the percentage of concrete and adding more sand, resulting in a product that is brittle and even more prone to failure during quakes. In addition, a common building practice in Haiti is to simply stack the blocks atop each other without reinforcing them with metal bars that would help to hold them together in the event of a quake.
Soon the international community’s efforts will shift from rescue and relief efforts to the task of helping Haiti to rebuild. The immensity of the challenge that lies ahead is daunting. Port-au-Prince resembles a war zone, its infrastructure ruined and many of its buildings reduced to rubble or severely damaged, including the presidential palace, the parliamentary building and a number of government ministries.
The United Nations estimates that as many as 1 million people have been rendered homeless by the temblor and its numerous aftershocks, including around 700,000 in Port-au-Prince. Currently hundreds of thousands of Haitians are living in makeshift tents in open areas inside the city and plans are being made to evacuate an estimated 400,000 refugees to locations in the suburbs and countryside. At minimum, all refugees must be provided with shelter, potable water, food, sanitation facilities and medicine.
Governments around the world have donated $783 million to Haiti and pledged an additional $1.13 billion, according to U.N. figures released Jan. 24. Given the dire poverty of Haiti — it is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, with 80 percent of its people living below the poverty level and 54 percent living in abject poverty — and the vast magnitude of the crisis, it is vital that all members of the international community make good on their promises. Efforts must also be made to ensure aid is used properly and efficiently.
As valuable as it is now, however, foreign aid will only provide a short-term solution to Haiti’s problems. Haiti’s economy must be transformed so it can generate the necessary funds to ensure the construction of buildings and infrastructure that can resist the destructive forces of mother nature. Although Haiti has long been mired in poverty due to poor governance and a host of other factors, it has solid economic potential. It is located in a peaceful region, has ready access to shipping lanes and is less than 2,000 km from one of the world’s largest markets, the United States.
Oxford economics professor Paul Collier, who served as the U.N. special representative to Haiti and is the author of “The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing,” says the key to turning Haiti around is to help it help itself. Toward this end, reconstruction efforts should be aimed at helping Haiti to develop an export-oriented light manufacturing capacity that can provide jobs for its people and generate revenue for the government (Mr. Collier recommends a garment industry, an area that has a good track record of spurring industrial growth in other developing countries). Critical to this effort is a decent infrastructure and trade preferences that can “pump-prime” nascent industries.
In a promising move toward this end, at an emergency aid meeting held in Montreal on Monday, Japan, the U.S. and other participants agreed to a 10-year-effort to rebuild Port-au-Prince and foster Haiti’s long-term development.
Japan is particularly well positioned to provide assistance to Haiti, given its vast experience in the areas of earthquake-disaster relief and seismic engineering. It has pledged some $70 million in aid and ¥30 million ($330,000) in emergency supplies, and has sent a 24-member civilian medical team as well as a 180-member Self Defense Force team comprising doctors, liaison officers and transport unit members to support relief efforts. Japan also plans to send some 300 SDF engineers to engage in reconstruction and humanitarian efforts.
Japan should also make efforts to share with Haiti the wealth of knowledge it amassed when it rose from the ruins of World War II through the development of an export-oriented economy.
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