The Republic of Haiti, a living testimony to the desire of man, irrespective of colour to achieve freedom, is once again in the news. Haiti has caught recurrent international attention, not because of its progressive socio-political culture, rather for its peculiar affinity with disasters. Haiti is in the news again; this time calling for sombre reflection on the fate of a people so benumbed with tragedies. That Haiti is a disaster is an antithesis to the desires and hopes of its founding fathers who established a 27,750 square kilometres of lush vegetation, and in trademark defiance, retains French as an official language, despite being surrounded by legion of English-speaking neighbours. It is a sad testimony to the efforts of those men and women who denounced slavery in early 18th century that the country has become an international liability, barely able to manage or sustain itself. Toussaint l’Ouverture must be turning in his grave!
The slide into doom for Haiti was gradual and intense. Years of misrule and intense mismanagement gradually turned the lush vegetation of a mountainous region created by Toussaint et al into an environmentally depleted region where deforestation is the norm and poverty an abiding fate. Even the famed powers of the mystical voodoo which has become synonymous with this tropical American region failed to stop the slide into the abyss. By 1925, Haiti was lush, still retaining 60% of its original forest. However, by the end of the century, an estimated 98% of Haiti’s forest had been lost – used as fuel for cook stoves. Haiti retains the unenviable record of the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere and a leader in tree-felling. The unbearable cost of oil created the environmentally unattractive alternate of charcoal (from burnt trees). This has provided more than 85% of Haiti’s energy need for decades. Denuded mountain slopes have accentuated the tendency towards flooding, mudslides and erosions. By 2004, only 1.4% of Haiti’s forests remained.
Haiti remains a constant site of catastrophe because of its heart-tugging social ills. Poverty remains the chief, also including deforestation, unstable governments, poor building standards and low literacy rates. Or as Professor Richard Olson of the Florida International University puts it, “there is a whole bunch of things working against Haiti, one is the hurricane track, the second is the tectonics and you then have environmental degradation and poverty.” The biting poverty level in Haiti stemmed principally from the tumbling prices of coffee. Katherine Arie (Alert Net, 2004) stated that the tumbling world coffee prices prompted Haitians who were mostly coffee growers to abandon coffee crops that had long been shade-grown, thus turning long preserved trees into sources of fuels for cook stoves. However, the greatest contributor to perpetual poverty and economic marginalization was the perennial cycle of corruption borne out of political dictatorship and instability starting from the era of President “Papa Doc” Duvalier. Thereafter, President “Baby Doc” Duvalier and his wife Michelle ruthlessly diverted state wealth into personal use and it was estimated that over $504 million was lost from the public treasury between 1971 and 1986. Aristide, a Christian pastor who later became President, not only epitomised corruption, but also made drug-trafficking a major industry. The end-result of incessant misrule and poverty is a shattered social infrastructures, massive social deprivations, citizens living in a culture of fear and a very high rate of HIV/AIDS (affecting 4.5% of the population).
The grinding effects of un-abating poverty in Haiti include the emergence of slums and slip-shod houses. This was accentuated by rural to urban migration and lack of a proper housing policy. Of course, Haiti has been hurricane-focused for a long while but it had always been known that it lies within the earthquake realm. Tom Dixon of the University of Miami identified a southern zone fault where the earthquake of Tuesday January 12, 2010 occurred. This was a quake of 7.0 magnitude with an epicentre 16 miles west of Port-au-Prince and one that would remain in memory as one of the worst human disasters ever witnessed. The ground work for the disaster was completed long before it manifested – unwavering poverty, monumental corruption and government failure and lack of resources to quake-proof buildings and structures. Even the presidential office ironically termed a “palace” was not spared. The country’s lack of early warning system had left people unaware and unprepared. In the words of Debarati Guha Sapir (director of World Health Organisation’s Centre for Research on Epidemiology of Disasters), vulnerability to natural disasters is almost a direct function of poverty. For this to be the deadliest quake on record, the death toll would have to top the 2004 Asian tsunami that killed more than 227,000 and a 1976 China earthquake that killed 225,000 (US Geological Survey).
The recent earthquake in Haiti would be the 15th disaster the country would be facing since 2001. A timeline for the disasters indicate:
1770 – Earthquake devastated Port-au-Prince
1842 – Earthquake destroyed Cap-Haitien and other cities
1935 – Unnamed storm killed over 2000 people
1946 – Tsunamis killed 1,790
1954 – Hurricane Hazel killed over 1000
1963 – Hurricane Flora killed over 8000 people making it the 6th most deadly hurricane ever
1994 – Hurricane Gordon killed hundreds
1998 – Hurricane Georges destroys over 80% of the crops
2004 – Hurricane Jeanne, which actually passed the north of the country as a tropical storm dumping 13 inches of rains on the northern mountains, resulted in floods which killed over 3000 people.
PS: It should be noted that Jeanne and Gordon were not even hurricanes by the time they struck Haiti. They were just tropical storms but still capable of wreaking havoc in an environmentally depleted country. It does not even require a tropical storm to cause havoc in Haiti. It was also reported that three days of about 18 inches of heavy rainfall triggered floods that killed over 2600 people in May of 2004.
2007 – Tropical storm Noel triggered mudslides and floods
2008 – Three hurricanes and tropical storm killed over 800 people
2010 – Quake hits Port-au-Prince killing thousands with estimates running to over 200,000 people.