Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 18 January 2010

Terrible effects of earthquake in Haiti

The year 2010 began with a earthquake with terrible effects in Haiti that took up to 100,000 lives and devastated much of its capital city.  The needed relief work has only just begun.


In 2004, the year ended with a horrific earthquake-induced tsunami that took the lives of hundreds of thousands in several countries.  In 2010, the year began with another big earthquake in Haiti.  The 

devastation caused by 12 January earthquake has horrified the world and the end is still nowhere in sight.

The initial impact was terrible enough.  The earthquake destroyed 30% of the capital Port-Au-Prince

and in some neighbourhoods half the buildings went down.  The Presidential Palace, the Court of Justice, the United Nations buildings, schools government offices have not been spared.   

Tens of thousands were killed at first and with poor rescue operations the total could rise to over 100,000.  By last Saturday, 9,000 people had been buried.   About 3 million people are affected from loss of homes, lack of food and medical treatment.

According to media reports, there is increasing tension in the devastated city as the majority of the victims still have no or little access to power or food several days after the earthquake.

The crisis is compounded by the fact that the already weak administration itself has lost personnel and thus is unable to respond to the crisis.  The United Nations, which has thousands of staff and peacekeepers, also lost over a hundred personnel.  It has also been difficult for international relief workers and aid to get through to the island.

“They are getting more angry.  The situation situation is getting more tense,” said a United Nations spokesperson in Haiti, adding that the national police had virtually disappeared and were not on the streets.

In one of the first eye-witness accounts, Pooja Bhatia of the Institute of World Affairs, gave a heart-rending picture of what she saw.     

“The day after, as the sun exposed bodies strewn everywhere, and every fourth building seemed to have fallen, Haitians were still praying in the streets. But mostly they were weeping, trying to find friends and family, searching in vain for relief and walking around in shock.

“This earthquake will make the devastating storms of 2008 look like child's play. Entire neighborhoods have vanished. The night of the earthquake, my boyfriend, who works for the American Red Cross, and I tended to hundreds of Haitians who lived in shoddily built hillside slums. The injuries we saw were too grave for the few bottles of antiseptic, gauze and waterproof tape we had: skulls shattered, bones and tendons protruding from skin, chunks of bodies missing. Some will die in the coming days, but for the most part they are the lucky ones.

“No one knows where to go with their injured and dead, or where to find food and water. Relief is nowhere in sight. The hospitals that are still standing are turning away the injured. The headquarters of the United Nations peacekeeping force, which has provided the entirety of the country's logistical support, has collapsed. Cell and satellite phones don't work. Cars can't get through many streets, which are blocked by fallen houses. Policemen seem to have made themselves scarce.”

By last weekend, days after the earthquake, international relief efforts were underway.  The United States took control of the airport and has begun sending thousands of troops, while pledging US$100 million.  The United Nations requested US$500 million in aid for Haiti as it revives its operations there are and its health and food agencies are initiating relief programmes.

These efforts are expected to increase as the logistical lines to the stricken country are established.  But they have been too little too late to save the many thousands that could have been rescued from the rubble of the collapsed buildings.  They are urgently needed now to prevent even more deaths from the lack of food and health care.

The earthquake is the latest in a series of natural and man-made disasters to have hit this unfortunate country, which is the poorest in the Western hemisphere.

In 2008, Haiti was swept by a number of hurricanes and storms that destroyed 70,000 homes, causing hundreds of thousands around the country to be without food, clean water, other essentials and destroying significantly part of the livestock and food crops and irrigation systems.

The country has also suffered political upheavals, with a history of dictatorial rule, coups and allegations of human rights abuses. Presidential and legislative elections were to be held this year under UN supervision.  The earthquake may cause this to be delayed.

According to researcher Stephen Lendman of the Centre for Research on Globalisation, even before the earthquake, most Haitians had no running water, electricity, sanitation, or other public services.  

The country has been under US dominance since the 19th century. From 1849 - 1913, navy ships entered Haitian waters 24 times to "protect American lives and property," and from 1915 - 1934, US Marines occupied the country.  Following that, the US has supported local authoritarian rulers.

The democratically elected President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was ousted from the country in 2004 and went into exile in South Africa, blaming the United States for engineering the coup against him.  After the earthquake, Aristide announced he plans to return to Haiti to assist the people.

Haiti is a very poor society,  According to Lendman, three-fourths of Haitians live on less than $2 a day and over half on less than $1. Life expectancy is 52 years, Haiti has the highest HIV/AIDs incidence outside of sub-Sararan Africa, and the World Bank ranks Haiti lowest in the hemisphere on sanitation, nutrition and available health services with only 25 doctors and 11 nurses per 100,000 population, and most rural areas are on their own.

Well over half the population is food insecure and most Haitian children are undersized from malnutrition; less than half have access to safe drinking water; nearly 40% of Haitian children don't attend school; and fewer than 20% of Haitians aged 15 or over are literate;

The society is also unequal.  According to Lendman, 1% of Haitians control half the wealth, and an elite 5% of the population owns 75% of the arable land, and six dominant families control industrial production and trade.

It is a country that is least prepared to handle a natural disaster like the earthquake that struck last week.  Perhaps this latest devastation can eventually lead to a better organised and more socially equitable society that can better deal with future crises. Haiti deserves that.