Haiti: Not a hope in hell?

A common reaction to the earthquake in Haiti has been to talk about the country as “cursed”. This could give the impression that what happened is somehow beyond human capacity to forestall. But one of the most chilling aspects of the earthquake is the lack of surprise expressed by experts from a number of domains about the scale of the destruction and loss of life.

In his 2009 Mallet-Milne Lecture on The Seismic Future of Cities, Roger Bilham stated that “It should be appalling to the people of the world that in 2009, more than a 100 years after earthquake resistant construction began to be understood and implemented by engineers, that it is possible to write an article forecasting large numbers of future earthquake fatalities from the collapse of cities.

For Professor Bilham and his colleagues, geophysics is only part of the explanation. Loss of life on the scale seen in Haiti is not “natural” in the modern world. A similar quake that hit the Japanese city of Kobe in 1995 caused widespread destruction and even if it killed 6434 people, casualties in this densely-populated area were far less than in Port-au-Prince.

Why did Haiti’s capital collapse? It’s on a well-known seismic fault line and has experienced shocks before, but nothing seemed to be built to resist earthquakes. Even the presidential palace was destroyed. For Bilham, it’s a political question. “In some cities… corruption has effectively replaced governance… Officials and politicians may find themselves being pressured to exercise flexibility in the interpretation of building codes. The resulting structures may contain numerous violations, to be discovered only when the structure collapses.”

But what does governance mean here? An OECD report cited Haiti as a “paradigmatic example” of the severest form of fragile state, where the legitimacy of the state is challenged, where the states’ capabilities and resources are low and where there are only rudimentary or fractured political processes for handling the resultant tensions. (more…)