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Haiti An Unnatural Disaster

Roger Abbott and Robert (Bob) White

A longer version of this article was published by The Kirby Laing Institute For Christian Ethics in 'Ethics in Brief', Spring 2013 (Vol.18 No.3)

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January 12th 2013, marked the third anniversary of a devastating earthquake that struck the Caribbean country of Haiti. Over 220,000 people died. Around 70% of these deaths were in Port-au-Prince, the capital. It also left 300,000 with life-changing injuries, both physical and psychological, and 1.5 million homeless. 40% of federal employees were killed or injured, including essential government and United Nations personnel; 14% of medical personnel died; 28 out of 29 government ministries were levelled.

Around £1.5 billion were pledged in aid for emergency relief and reconstruction, yet the earthquake costs are above £5 billion. Ten months after the earthquake a cholera epidemic took another 7,000 lives and sickened 530,000 patients. The legacies of these tragedies – physical and mental health disabilities, displaced people, unemployment, limited access to medical assistance, little sanitation, poor access to clean water, gender violence ? are ongoing as we write.

Recurrent natural hazards

In places like Haiti, where there is recurrent exposure to natural hazards of weather, floods and earthquakes, there can be a tendency to categorise such events as ‘natural disasters’, as distinct from the ‘man-made’ kinds such as road or building accidents and terrorism. But such a binary perspective on disasters can have negative practical consequences for those struck by the disaster, for those who respond to it with aid, and for those who try to interpret a world that suffers apparently random catastrophic events. Understanding and interpreting them with scientific and ethical integrity is essential to a constructive response.

Haiti sits on a plate boundary in the Caribbean, a well known source of frequent large earthquakes. The fault which passes through Port-au-Prince absorbs about 8 millimetres (one quarter of an inch) per year of the total motion. But the brittle uppermost 10?15 kilometres of the earth’s crust do not slide past each other smoothly like well-lubricated cogs. Rather, they get stuck and the stresses gradually build up until they are released in one sudden jerk.

That is what happened in Haiti in 2010, when the fault moved about 2 metres (6 feet) in one go. That displacement had built up over the past two centuries since the last devastating earthquake in 1770 which had flattened Port-au-Prince. The 1770 earthquake followed another violent earthquake in 1751 which had already destroyed Port-au-Prince once. It is likely that there will be more large earthquakes in the Port-au- Prince region in the not too distant future.

Much of the loss of life in 2010 was because poorly built dwellings, often located on unsuitable landslide surfaces, collapsed on their inhabitants. The buildings themselves became weapons of mass destruction.

Social history

Haitian social history is characterised both by endurance of the people and by crippling economic and social subjugation of the majority of the population. Haiti was born out of the fight by black slaves, kidnapped from West Africa to serve the white European colonizers who initially conquered the island of Hispaniola in 1492. In 1804 Haiti became the first independent nation to emerge from the abyss of black slavery.

The slaves had defied the Spanish and French colonizers and asserted their black ethnicity, purging the whites from their midst. This revolution sent tremors down the spines of many Western, white neighbours, some of whom made urgent moves to ensure that the new found freedoms for which ordinary Haitians had fought became subjugated both by people within her own aspiring leadership elites and by self-interested international parties. Thus, the freedoms of the revolution were soon threatened by internal divisions, corrupt trade deals that favoured minorities within Haiti, and by foreign tax impositions.

The majority poor of Haiti have been trapped for generations by ruling regimes that have controlled them by terror, with few employment prospects, meagre wages and an absence of land ownership for most people. Coupled to this is the wide-scale absence of an infrastructure of transportation, of basic sanitation and access to clean water, of adequate education and healthcare. Western nations have also played their part in the deforestation of Haiti’s hills and mountains, rendering her once forested and fertile land, and the poorer folk living off it, poorly prepared for the devastating impacts of rains, winds and earthquakes.

The undermining of Haitian agriculture (traditionally the main employment in Haiti) by neighbours who manipulated markets to ensure that Haiti had to import from them goods she could have produced and exported herself, and political policies of centralisation, have caused immigration into the slums around the capital city, Port-au-Prince. Urbanisation has placed an unbearable burden on safe housing, sanitation, healthcare and, not least, on the provision of law and order, and justice, for millions. Such human dysfunctional social factors turned the earthquake into a largely man-made disaster.

How might theology and science be used to reflect on this tragedy?

Theologically, the Fall narrative suggests that humans are able to create a disaster out of the most ideal of environments. Human rebellion against God and the resultant human sinfulness has broken the divinely ordained relationship of humans with their creator God and with his creation. These broken relationships are evident in the struggle humans faced and still continue to face once they had disobeyed God (Gen 2?3). It is a struggle that will only finally be resolved in Christ and in the eschatological hope of a redeemed creation (Rom. 8:21).

What our society understands as ‘nature’, the Bible understands as creation. This means that natural geophysical events like earthquakes should be interpreted as aspects of creation. The earthquake is simply part of the fabric of the created world, albeit potentially hazardous to humans. However, it is also an aspect of creation that is accessible to investigation under the creation mandate to ‘subdue’ the earth (Gen. 1:28). The result of that ought to be the ability to build structures that don’t fall down in earthquakes, to produce social structures that reduce environmental risks, and to make scientific investigations to discover the history of previous earthquakes in the area, thereby facilitating mitigation of future earthquake hazards.

That such outcomes are possible is illustrated by another earthquake that also came immediately to global attention, which occurred offshore Japan on 11th March 2011. This released more than 50 times as much energy as the Haitian earthquake, yet of the millions of people in Tokyo, only one or two at most died in the earthquake. The reason was that the buildings were constructed to withstand such shaking. Technically that could also have been the case in Haiti, an area of known high earthquake risk. That it wasn’t is due to the numerous debilitating factors in Haiti that we have already listed.

We conclude that what happened in Haiti, on January 12th 2010, to make it the disaster it continues to be, was not natural, but something that was the consequence of accumulated human evil, historic and current, within and without the borders of this nation.

Given the social and political infrastructure that the majority of Haiti’s population desires, given the intellectual capabilities and endurance of that population under a fair democratic rule, and given a just political and civil infrastructure, it is well within the capacity of Haitians from within Haiti, to produce social and physical structures that can mitigate and aid adaptation to the environmental geophysical hazards. As Oliver-Smith concludes, ‘... disasters either do not occur or are not severe if a community is successfully adapted to its environment,’ and ‘...disasters occur in societies. They do not occur in nature.’

For centuries Haiti has been denied the opportunities to successfully adapt; the 2010 earthquake could go down as an event that gave her such an opportunity. It gives an ethical world the opportunity to help her in this process. This requires schemes of moral integrity, contextualised by what Haitians want and which serve the agendas of Haiti rather than of donor nations and international corporations. They must assist with capacity building and capability resources, but at the same time give responsibility and accountability to the Haitian people to build back their Haiti better.

Perhaps such ethical instruments would then serve to convince Haiti of the urgent requirement for integrity in her national governance that would establish the security and stability that would make Haiti safe for business and industrial investment and the employment opportunities that brings – the most significant practical key for Haiti’s future.

It also provides opportunity for the Christian Church to stand with the Haitian Church in encouraging moral and ethical integrity as leaven within her own spheres; this would demonstrate a hope for Haiti in the here and now while at the same time holding firm to the Christological and eschatological hope of a renewed world to come.