Post-quake Haiti: Left in the rubble
Five years have passed since that terrible Tuesday afternoon. In just a few seconds, a 7.3 Richter scale earthquake brought Haiti to its knees. Later, the world would watch a stream of shocking images on the news bulletins charting the devastation; from flimsy huts which toppled like dominoes killing so many, to the occasional moment of joy as someone was pulled alive from the clawing clutches of a trap that had once been their home.
In the days and weeks after the disaster, the international solidarity machine juddered into life. Billions were raised, while humanitarian agencies from all over the world raced to send aid and relief operators. The quake had left two million people homeless and many took refuge in temporary camps, supported by foreign aid.
When the initial shock had passed and the immediate life-saving relief operations had been completed, Haitian leaders and international donors started seeding the idea that the reconstruction process might offer the opportunity to start afresh. “Build back better” became a mantra.
Hope for recovery
Its underpinning philosophy was the hope that recovery efforts might achieve more than just restoring the poor living conditions and rickety housing that had made the population so vulnerable when the quake hit.
Encouraged by this climate of hope, Amnesty International started campaigning along with Haitian human rights organisations, for the right to adequate housing in Haiti.
On 8 January, we published a new report “15 minutes to leave” – Denial of the right to adequate housing in post-quake Haiti. So, five years later, what is the assessment?
If you measure success in terms of the number of displacement camps closed, like the Haitian government does, the result is stunning. They’ve decreased by more than 90 percent since 2010.
However, if you look at the circumstances of those who have left, the conclusion is much grimmer. According to some data sources, more than 12 percent of people have been forcibly evicted, run off the land, and the true figure could be much higher.
The luckiest ones have been the 32 percent who have received rental subsidies to rent accommodations of their choice for one year. However, even those often face enormous challenges to stay. The grants expire, leaving many with no choice but to move again into substandard housing.
Indeed, less than 20 percent of the housing solutions provided in the wake of the disaster can be seen as long term, that is to say; repairing, rebuilding or building permanent housing. Instead, short-term, sticking plaster solutions, like temporary wooden structures have been favoured: Structures that work well as an emergency response to a crisis, but not designed for more than a few years’ use.
The situation looks even more disheartening when you consider that the vast majority of those long-term solutions have benefited those who owned a house or land before the disaster. The most destitute, those who were the most disadvantaged before the quake, continue to be left out in the cold.
Shelter from the quake
Take Jacqueline, for example. The house she was renting collapsed in the earthquake. She took shelter in one of the many makeshift camps that sprung up in Port-au-Prince.
Then, 10 months after the earthquake she decided to leave the camp, the overcrowding and lack of security had become too much to bear. She gathered up the tarpaulins and other items that she had received from humanitarian agencies and relocated to an area named Canaan, on the northern outskirts of the capital.
Canaan seemed like a good choice. A few months after the disaster, the then-president had declared that the vast area of Canaan was to be expropriated in the national interest.
Like thousands of others, Jacqueline thought that in Canaan the state would invest in the land, and that she would be safe and could start rebuilding her life.
She was wrong. Not only had the state left them without any support to build safe and adequate houses, it also failed to finalise the expropriation process and left the residents of the camp exposed to the claims of alleged landowners who tried to forcibly evict many of them.
“In January 2014, the police came with armed men and started destroying several shelters in our sector, Village Grace de Dieu. Mine was spared but several families lost everything once again. Even now, we are still under threat,” Jacqueline said.
When I met Jacqueline in September 2014, she was living in a half-built, concrete house, with no electricity and just a hole outside to use as a toilet. The air was dry and the soil salty. She had to buy and carry in her own drinking water. Still, she was trying her best to get by.
“We would like to stay on this land and have support from the state to access water, electricity and have schools and a hospital here,” she told me. “The state should help us [to build] houses in a better way… Without the state, we cannot live well.”
The Haitian authorities must make housing a priority. They must finally provide long-term measures to ensure access to adequate and affordable housing to all those made homeless by the earthquake and to all those living in poverty.
The international community also has an important role to play. In the same way countries around the world rallied to pledge billions for humanitarian and recovery aid, they now have a responsibility to support the Haitian authorities in using those funds on real priorities. Adequate housing is definitely a key one.
All governments must step up and ensure that reconstruction and recovery initiatives that they support are sustainable and adapted to the needs of the population, especially the most vulnerable ones. They must also ensure that these initiatives do not, directly or indirectly, lead to forced evictions.
After the earthquake, the widespread “build back better” philosophy led many to believe that Haiti could grow stronger from the rubble. It is about time that the Haitian authorities and the international community help turn those stones and dust into homes, and ensure that the right to adequate housing becomes a reality for all in Haiti.
This op-ed originally appeared on Al Jazeera.
Haiti: Five years after devastating earthquake tens of thousands still homeless and desperate (News story/report, 8 January 2015)