Building back a better Haiti

Theo Schilderman
June 24th, 2010

The earthquake that struck Haiti in January this year caused massive damage and more than 200,000 casualties, many in the poor slum areas of the capital, Port-au-Prince.

About a month later, another earthquake hit Concepción in Chile; it was nearly a hundred times stronger than the one that hit Haiti, and did substantial damage too, yet the number of casualties was only about 1% of that in Haiti.Rebuilding homes in Ica, Peru, after an earthquake

What caused that huge difference in impact?

Chile had adequate building standards, including seismic-resistant design, that were properly implemented; above all, the Chileans could afford to build using those standards. In Haiti, that was clearly not the case.

The truth is that Haitians have been left extremely vulnerable to hazards like earthquakes and hurricanes by years of poor governance, environmental mismanagement and increasingly unequal distribution of incomes. So many people were unable to build to disaster-resistant standards – with the catastrophic results seen in January.

Jay Merrick’s article British architect to rebuild Haiti’s social housing in The Independent of June 21st, draws attention to the need to rebuild affordable, but safer houses in the aftermath of the disaster in Haiti.

There is certainly a case for that, and the availability of external aid offers an opportunity to do so. However, it is a fallacy to think that building safer houses alone is enough. Whilst these will certainly help to reduce risk for a while, they may do little to tackle underlying vulnerabilities, and therefore the same problem may re-occur when another hazard strikes in the future.

What is actually needed is not just to make houses more resilient, but also the people of Haiti themselves. Therefore, building back a better Haiti needs to consider rebuilding livelihoods and local markets as well as social networks, alongside housing.Rebuilding homes in Ica, Peru, after an earthquake

The article suggests that a design competition and exhibition, involving many foreign companies and consultants, alongside some from Haiti, is going to help define the types of housing that Haiti should rebuild. It is certainly useful to expose people to additional options and have a frank debate about those, as clearly many local housing solutions failed in the face of the earthquake.

However, the approach does raise a number of questions:

1. How are lessons going to be learned from the disaster, with respect to e.g. what particular failures in construction contributed to it, and which local solutions perhaps did better, because these have to be taken on board when designing for reconstruction. Do external agencies have adequate information of this type?

2. The process of producing housing, including taking design decisions, is even more important than its end product, as it builds people’s capacities and empowers them; empowerment is key to building resilience. This competition and exhibition does not involve Haiti’s people at all, until the prototypes are built; so how empowering can it be?

3. There is a real risk that, as a result of this process, we will end up with a number of standard housing types. Will they be able to accommodate the large variety in needs of Haitian families of different sizes and occupations? Will they allow for income generating activities in the house? How flexible can they be made, to adjust to individual needs?

4. Reconstruction and the influx of foreign capital does offer opportunities to boost livelihoods and local markets. The article does mention that housing will be low-tech and use mainly local building materials and builders, which is really positive. But how does prefabricated mass housing fit into that picture?

5. In terms of livelihoods, the location of any future housing is also crucial. The Haitian government seems to want to relocate many of the original slum dwellers to new settlements in less earthquake-prone locations, away from the capital. Has anyone thought of the livelihoods consequences? If not, people may be forced to quickly return to the city, or decide not to relocate at all, as the experience from elsewhere shows.

6. People’s social networks are an important asset to them, as they provide support to households in times of need. Following a disaster, such networks are often weakened, because members have died or have scattered. What is being done to rebuild those networks, e.g. in deciding on housing and location priorities?

What perhaps follows from this is that what is needed is not just British architects, but multi-sectoral teams, including Haitian professionals, working with the people of Haiti, to develop much more integrated rebuilding programmes.

One Response to “Building back a better Haiti”

  1. Andrew Betts Says:

    Dear Theo,

    Let’s hope some of your thinking will be taken on board.

    Hope all’s well with you.

    It’s a long time since we worked together but Rob Aley is now with Advantage Africa so the PA links are still there albeit weaker.

    Best wishes from AndrewBetts

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