Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 1 October 2014

One year on and poverty is now the big killer in Haiti

The island has not recovered from last January's earthquake and older problems also haunt the Haitians, says Guy Adams

It is the Western hemisphere's poorest nation, hobbled by generations of corruption and social turmoil which have resulted in two-thirds unemployment and an economy entirely reliant on overseas aid. That was Haiti - even before disaster struck the island at around 5pm last January 12.

The earthquake which rattled through the capital, Port-au-Prince, for around 90 seconds measured 7.0 on the Richter scale. That hardly makes it a blockbuster. Bigger quakes happen somewhere in the world every few months. But they rarely strike so fragile a target.

In a nation where 80% of the population lives below the poverty line and 54% exists in conditions the UN officially classifies as 'abject', the daily struggle to make ends meet had created an environment ripe for disaster.

The population of Port-au-Prince had roughly quadrupled in the previous decade, thanks in part to the US dumping cheap rice on the Haitian market, bankrupting its farmers.

By last January, the city had become a chaotic metropolis, in which 3m people were sandwiched into a small plot of land just five miles across.

We now know that their breeze-block dwellings were no match for the quake, which had its epicentre 16 miles away.

We also know that, thanks to non-existent building codes, many of the city's larger structures would tumble like a house of cards. It took days for the dust to even settle.

When it did, Haiti's deadly shortcomings were apparent. Roads were gridlocked and impassable in all but 4x4s.

The nation's main port had collapsed into the sea. All aid was being funnelled in by plane, through one tiny airport which had no control tower and was hopelessly overstretched. Phone, electricity, internet and water systems had been demolished.

To drive into the city on the Friday of that week was to experience scenes from a disaster movie which had yet to be edited to avoid offending the squeamish.

Corpses littered almost every street. The survivors stepping over them were thirsty, penniless, and on the verge of panic.

From everyone you spoke with, you'd hear tales of unimaginable tragedy: children who'd lost entire families, mothers whose children had vanished.

The smell - raw sewage and rotting flesh - took weeks to forget. The psychological trauma lingered even longer.

Its enduring effects on the national psyche can scarcely be imagined. A total of around 300,000 perished; many bodies were never identified and are now in mass graves in the hills around town. For many Haitians - one year on - the pain endures. By most estimates, around 1.5m people - which equates to roughly a quarter of the population of Haiti - were made homeless by the quake.

Roughly 4,000 western aid workers are still in the country, employing a small army of well-meaning staff. All things considered, they do a decent job.

Until the recent cholera outbreak, which has been reasonably contained, there had been no widespread problems with disease. Western charities have provided basic sanitation and reasonable medical care.

But aid can only achieve so much. To return to anything like normal, Haiti needs a basic economy and the apparatus of normal government - a prospect which seems as far away as ever following November's botched election. For Haiti to truly recover, the cycle of dependency must be broken.

An earthquake might have caused the natural disaster, but in Haiti - 12 months on - poverty is the real killer.

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