On 14 August 2021, Haiti was hit by a magnitude 7.2 earthquake with an epicentre in the Canal du Sud (120 km west of the capital, Port-au-Prince). The quake killed over 2,200 people and injured more than 12,000.
A disaster 300 years in the making
The 2021 disaster quickly drew comparisons to a similar earthquake in 2010, which occurred on the same fault lines, the long cracks in the surface of the earth where earthquakes often occur. Not much has changed in the years since 2010 – Haiti is still in a state of disrepair; the national palace, for example, still has not been rebuilt.
magnitude at shallow depth of 10 km
Though the magnitude of the seismic event was significant, earthquakes of similar strength cause much less damage in other parts of the world, exposing how Haiti is particularly vulnerable to disasters. These vulnerabilities can be traced back through centuries and have only been compounding over time.
Colonialization and slavery in the 1700s, the war for independence, subsequent diplomatic isolation in the 1800s and an unjustified reparations debt perpetuated systems of land degradation, peasant labour and extractive industries, creating systemic social and environmental issues. The following decades of corruption, military coups, dictatorships and foreign occupations created conditions of extreme political instability. This, combined with the cumulative effect of yearly hurricanes, floods, landslides and droughts, has created a vicious cycle of vulnerability to disasters.
The current risks are deeply embedded in the social, economic and environmental history of the region, which have led to fragility and extreme vulnerability.
Haiti is not poor; it is rich in culture, resources and value. But these resources have been exploited, misappropriated and mismanaged. Haiti’s history is full of other countries and agencies putting the pursuit of profit over the needs of the Haitian people.
Any solution to help Haiti recover from this crisis and to build resilience for the future must recognize that the current risks are deeply embedded in the social, economic and environmental history of the region, which have led to fragility and extreme vulnerability. This is true in many contexts around the world, whereby addressing these vulnerabilities means giving agency to the people, supporting them in finding their own solutions and re-examining the power structures that created these problems in the first place.
This event illustrates the social and historical construction of disasters and how a disaster is not isolated in time but instead connected to pre-existing and constructed vulnerabilities, the impacts of preceding disasters, decisions and environments.
Unequal distribution of economic opportunities and limited livelihood options
The continued effects of exploitation by a foreign power
A lack of perception, awareness or preparation in governance relating to risk management and response
Pursuit of economic or developmental interests with a lack of consideration for impacts on the environment
Planned and controlled criminal activities that perpetuate a hazard or vulnerability.
An absence or ineffective enforcement of regulations to increase resilience.
Intentional mass removal of trees, often for resource extraction or changing land use.
Infrastructure vulnerable to extreme events, often due to lack of investment, maintenance, inadequate planning or poor construction.
Through their impacts on natural and agricultural systems, supply chains and economies, disasters can put access to the foods we depend on for survival at risk.
Disasters cause fatalities both when they occur and in the aftermath with cascading effects on physical and mental health.
Public and private structures and systems can be impacted by disasters, from homes and properties to physical assets critical for providing health services, transport, food, water, communications and more.
Even those surviving disasters when they occur can be at risk of short- and long-term health impacts cascading from pollution or damage of critical infrastructure and livelihood disruption.
Reduction of people’s ability to support themselves or their family, both temporarily or permanently, is an impact that is interconnected with many others, including health and food security.
Disasters can force people to move from their homes due to the loss of shelter, livelihoods or the risk of further incidents occurring. People may be temporarily displaced or urged to migrate to other areas.
Agroforestry and soil stabilization: Agroforestry has the combined effect of soil degradation protection and landslide risk reduction while also providing income to farmers from agriculture, timber and non-timber products, as well as promoting biodiversity. Species used must be adapted to local ecosystems and climate conditions now and in the future, as well as to the needs of farmers.
Earthquake-safe building: In order to prevent collapse/injury, buildings must be designed with risks in mind. Traditional wattle and daub or wooden structures are not only more resistant to earthquakes and hurricanes than concrete but also made with lighter materials that are less deadly in the event of collapse.
Grass-roots governance: Localization and devolution of government structures towards regional authorities can give power and agency to local people, potentially limiting the influence of corruption and neocolonialism. Haitian problems require Haitian solutions, and Haitian people should lead the way. Grassroots initiatives must be formed, recognized and supported.
Land rights: Insecurity over ownership of land can influence decision-making on management and investments into the future of a property. Formalizing the ownership of the land people live on would give them greater agency and determination of their own goals and aspirations, as well as likely paving the way to greater investment in long-term benefits.