Haiti's Disasters are Man-MadeRoundup
tags: disasters, Haiti
Emmanuela Douyon is a specialist in economic development and the Executive Director of Policité.
Alyssa Sepinwall is professor of history at California State University - San Marcos, and author of Haitian History: New Perspectives and Slave Revolt on Screen: The Haitian Revolution in Film and Video Games.
On Aug. 14, a magnitude-7.2 earthquake struck Haiti’s southern peninsula. Coming a month after the assassination of Haiti’s president and amid a severe coronavirus surge, the quake was the latest blow to the Caribbean nation. Haiti has still not fully recovered from the catastrophic 2010 earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands of people. And on Aug. 16, Tropical Depression Grace thundered into Haiti, bucketing rain onto earthquake survivors sleeping outside and causing hillsides and roads to crumble.
Why do tragedies keep afflicting Haiti? Or, as commentators keep repeating, why can’t Haiti “catch a break”? What went wrong in the post-2010 reconstruction effort, after individuals and governments from across the globe pledged billions of dollars in aid, and how can things be different this time?
Haitians have been subjected to more than their share of calamities recently and in the past. These tragedies are not unlucky coincidences. They have common causes, both natural and historical.
Haiti has the double misfortune of sitting atop two major fault zones and lying in the middle of the Caribbean hurricane belt. Though tropical storms have always threatened Haiti, climate change has accelerated their pace and ferocity. The same regions of Haiti leveled by this earthquake were still laboring to recover from 2016’s Hurricane Matthew.
Many specialists are quick to point out, however, that earthquakes and hurricanes in Haiti have historically been “man-made disasters” as much as natural ones. For one thing, Haiti suffers from more erosion after storms and earthquakes because of deforestation policies begun by French colonizers in the 17th century, who clear-cut forests to build plantations. Without trees rooting soil firmly in place, earthquakes and landslides have far more devastating consequences in Haiti than in the neighboring Dominican Republic, where Spanish colonizers did not uproot trees with the same aggression.
Other factors amplify the effect of natural disasters in Haiti. Wealthier nations with stronger central governments can mandate the construction of earthquake-resistant buildings, which protect residents during natural disasters. And after catastrophic natural events in wealthy countries, hospitals with advanced technology can save survivors at much greater rates. In Haiti, the number of casualties since last weekend’s earthquake is climbing, with ongoing infrastructure challenges compounded by Grace’s onslaught.
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