Drawing lessons from the 2010 Haiti earthquake – Part 1

Earthquake Lessons for Nepal Series – #2.1

The 2015 Nepal earthquake is comparable to the 2010 Haiti earthquake in terms of magnitude, destruction as well as response from the international community. The experiences in Haiti can act as lessons, as Nepal makes strides in terms of relief and moves towards rehabilitation and reconstruction following this natural disaster. The experiences in Haiti have been both positive and negative, and Nepal has a lot to learn from them. 

While relief in Nepal is being undertaken by the Nepal Army as well as international organization, a large portion of relief work has also been has been undertaken by the civil society and volunteer groups which has been ignored by the international media. Although there has been some coordination and planning of the relief efforts, it is still at an improvisation stage. This can have a grave impact on the future of reconstruction in Nepal, as can be seen through the Haiti experience. In Haiti, five years on, reconstruction has, arguably, not really started. 

The following note was written by John Rhys Bevan, as a personal reflection on the earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12, 2010, and the lessons it could provide for Nepal.

I imagine that many of the issues dealt with in this note have already been considered and integrated into contingency planning for disaster mitigation.  This note is not a scientific or systematic review but is a series of observations by someone close to, but not part of, the relief effort.  It is not meant as a criticism of the relief effort.

The main lesson from the Haiti experience in 2010 is that after the widespread destruction of such a magnitude, everyone and every organization was overwhelmed, resulting in a chaotic response making it almost impossible to coordinate or target relief in the right areas. A major consequence of this is that organizations become introverted when faced with disaster of a scale that they cannot fully comprehend. Much time and effort is spent on ‘restructuring’ or working feverishly with only a partial understanding of the context in which they are operating and with little idea of how this fits in to the overall effort.  What made the immediate emergency response in Haiti ‘successful’ was that it was so massive that almost inevitably all the affected population received minimum life-sustaining aid.  But the relative chaos of the relief response has meant that it is still going on, and the ‘reconstruction/development’ phase has not kicked in.  This is in part at least due to the continuation of the emergency provision.  Difficult though it is in such circumstances, clearly the seeds of reconstruction need to be sown as the emergency effort is beginning and that the follow-on should emerge ‘organically’ from the relief effort.  I hope that some of the points below will illustrate this.

A major problem that emerged in the first year after the quake is that humanitarian relief is basically top-down while reconstruction needs to happen with a participatory approach, i.e. bottom-up and community-based.  Somehow these two approaches need to be reconciled. Level-headed policy making also proved to be extremely difficult in post-quake Haiti.  Short-term priorities tended to dominate ‘early response’ which often did not flow easily into, or even hampered ‘early recovery’.

The magnitude of the disaster was, as I say, overwhelming and it is unrealistic to expect the international community to be able to have a fully prepared adequate ‘stand-by’ capacity to be mobilized immediately in response to a natural disaster of such dimensions.  It is for this reason that organizations, even those with contingency plans and a knowledge of best practices- which only covers a percentage of relief organizations- have inevitably been obliged to improvise and adapt their normal practice as the response evolves.

One of the major policy decisions, which should be taken prior to the disaster, is ‘who will be entitled to relief aid/compensation and on what basis?’  The behavior of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and the affected population is to a degree determined by the perceived possible assistance to which they hope that they could be entitled.  Often this behavior is based on rumor and may hamper relief strategies.  In Haiti, for example, many of those who moved to the more than 1,000 IDP camps were not directly affected by the quake in the sense that they did not lose their homes.  This is quite simply because they were slum dwellers who had no hard-wall accommodation prior to 12 January 2010.  It is my estimate that this makes up at least half of the so-called ‘IDP population’.  Thus, the primary challenge for relief workers is to develop a profile of the affected population.  It is also urgent to quickly develop a common understanding within the humanitarian community of the priority target groups based on a systematic appraisal of ‘vulnerability’. This understanding of the nature of the affected population is important, as the group will be heterogeneous whereas often-humanitarian response assumes a homogenous population in need of assistance.  These differences will determine the nature of the incentives required for various groups to participate in the ‘re-normalization’ of the post-disaster situation.

One important policy puzzle is to decide how to deal with those who lose property- owned or rented – during the natural disaster and those who were ‘homeless’ or living in ‘precarious settlements’ prior to the quake.  From a ‘needs or rights-based’ approach, the vulnerable and homeless should be dealt with based on their current situation, not on how they got there, i.e. through the impact of a natural disaster or as a result of longer-term poverty-related issue which in the case of Nepal would inevitably be related to issues of caste and ethnicity as well as gender.  Such issues need to be worked through prior to the disaster given the difficulty of developing policy in the frenetic post-disaster context.

Amongst the priorities for expectation management involves the views on timeframes. Recovery and reconstruction almost always takes much longer than the affected population would imagine.  An idea of the timescales can be provided by the experiences in Aceh and Sri Lanka and other areas post tsunami.  The slowness of reconstruction in Haiti is a harsh lesson of the difficulties of working in co-ordination with a weak state. It is also worth looking at historical examples, such as the Nicaraguan quake of 1972 where the centre of Managua still remains in ruins. Any use of the post-tsunami experiences must take into account the peculiarities of the geographical impact of the tsunami, i.e. a coastal fringe, never far from an unaffected, safe area.  This is very different from the geographical impact of an earthquake.  Crucially, also, the tsunami-affected areas enjoyed the support of unaffected capitals.  The predicted quake in Nepal would probably share with Haiti the extremely negative factor of an affected capital, which, in turn, means that many potential national first-responders are themselves, victims.

During 2010 it was possible to discern three phases in the approach to the IDPs.  In the initial, military-led two months, the IDPs were seen as a logistical problem to be solved—this explains the rather bizarre project of moving some 7,000 IDPs from the relative safety of a golf club to the desert like area of Corail, north of the capital from where they had to be evacuated in preparation for the threatened landfall of Hurricane Tomas in November.  (It became clear during this crisis that there was no usable list of vulnerability or of safe evacuation sites.  It is also worth noting that a golf course is essentially a water management system so while some areas are vulnerable to ‘flooding’ they do not tend to be vulnerable to the kind of ‘flash-flooding’ which is the main threat to life).  With the withdrawal in April 2010 of the majority of international military that had responded to the quake, the approach became purely humanitarian with the IDPs being seen as victims requiring relief but not actually with a voice in determining the nature of that assistance.  In the latter months of the year, as the emphasis moved towards reconstruction, the IDPs became seen more as communities, as members of a neighborhood.  They are now seen as a social movement or social problem, according to the perspective, particularly those who are living on the many public squares and other sites such as sports grounds.  In the Nepal case, it would be desirable to, from the start, take a multi-dimensional, multi-disciplinary approach rather than a sequence of one-dimensional approaches.

Click here for Part 2 of this article

Cover Photo: Buildings affected by the earthquake in the Sankhu Area. Pranil Ratna Tuladhar