Hurricane Irma and its impact on Haitian cities

Interview with UNASCAD Haiti

With rising ocean water temperatures due to climate change, hurricanes are becoming stronger and last longer. This year, the Caribbean and parts of the US were hit by hurricane Irma, a particularly devastating storm. How can costal cities prepare for such disasters, and mitigate their effects? In an interview, Joseph Severe, Jean Frantz Jure and Nicolas Jean talk about the situation in Haiti.

Q: How do Haitian cities try to weaken the impacts of hurricanes on their residents?

A hurricane is a cyclone of tropical origin, and thus a typical occurrence in the region. Consequently, Haiti has a long history of disasters of great damage and consequences (e.g.: hurricanes Sandy and Isaac in 2012, Matthew in 2016). The effects were disastrous due to the absence of structural measures or installations such as dykes, levees, pumping stations, etc. that could have protected the population. Such situations create high risks of health epidemics, pandemic, food insecurity, exclusion, displacement, water scarcity, and even war, especially in urban contexts.

Together with the Haitian government, the UNDP in Haiti has developed a paper entitled “Methodological Guide for the reduction natural risks in urban areas in Haiti”. In order to weaken the impacts of disasters and to protect urban residents and cities, this guide focuses on four main axes, namely:

• Prevention
• Safeguard
• Protection
• Information/training

Q: To what extend have Haitian cities been struck by hurricane Irma?

On September 7, 2017, Hurricane Irma came close to the northern part of Haiti, which counts among the poorest countries in the world. Heavy rain, winds and flooding caused significant damage in the departments of the Great North (North, North-East, North-West, Centre and Artibonite). According to the assessment carried out under the leadership of the Civil Protection Direction (CPD), 22 municipalities were partially flooded by run-off from major rivers or coastal flooding. The heavy winds removed roofs from many houses. Two people went missing and 17 were wounded.

Compared to the heavy destruction Irma caused on several of the French Caribbean islands, in various Caribbean nations and Florida, the effects it had on the Haitian cities located in the Great North were not equally disastrous.

To address the flooding, the Haitian government has launched the highest level of alert throughout the country. UN humanitarian personnel have been deployed to the affected area of the island. In addition, military and police officers from the MINUSTAH peacekeeping mission have been deployed to assist the Haitian National Police.

Q: Which other urban challenges are Haitian cities confronted with? And how do cities cope with them?

According to the Haitian Institute for Statistics (IHSI), the Haitian population is expected to increase to more than 16 million inhabitants by 2050. If structural measures do not improve the living conditions for the rural population, 70 per cent of the total population will be living in urban areas by that time.

Urbanisation in Haiti is a heterogeneous process that encompasses both urban sprawl as the middle or affluent classes are settling in new suburbs, and an increase in density with gigantic towers and an immense scale of slums with unhealthy conditions. Like in other countries, the scale of Haiti’s urban problems is high in regard to access to water, sanitation, energy, and especially transport.

Poverty, marginality, inequality, lack of adequate basic sanitation services and water purification, vulnerable livelihoods and the rising rate of juvenile delinquency are all very prominent in the cities of the Great North that were struck by Irma.

Increasing urbanisation may be beneficial or detrimental to Haiti’s population, depending on the allocation of power and resources. Well-managed urbanisation significantly improves growth and quality of life for all. Inadequately managed urbanisation not only hampers development, but also promotes conflict, slums, crime and poverty.

Ideally, the aftermath of hurricane Irma will allow humanitarian actors and the Haitian government to focus on vulnerabilities, but also on the potentials of cities and citizens to build resilience to natural disasters. Local actors including municipalities and civil society are the ones most affected by disasters and, overwhelmed by the ensuing chaos, often weakened in their ability to act. It is important that the state lives up to its responsibilities and enables local actors to cope with such situations. In particular, insufficient coordination and disagreements over goals and strategies between local and foreign actors needs to be addressed.

Haitian cities share common challenges and needs, and face similar issues both on the formal and informal levels when it comes to communication between actors and institutions, and economic activities that are affected by natural disasters (fishing, commerce, agriculture).

Q: Which disaster risk reduction mechanism and strategies do Haitian cities need to be better prepared for natural disasters, and to reduce the negative impacts for the population?

Haiti is regularly put in danger by hazards like hurricanes, torrential rains, floods, tropical storms, landslides, earthquakes, and drought. Technological advancements have the potential to avoid disasters, but not all segments of the population have equal access to them or are able to profit from them. For the wealthy metropolitan areas, disasters like hurricanes are not nearly as catastrophic as for the disadvantaged urban areas, particularly the slums.

What must be done today to allow the cities of Haiti to resist to the shocks that natural phenomena like Irma provoke? We can provide an entire list of things that are necessary to better equip Haitian cities to deal with disasters and practice effective risk reduction.

  • Governments and local authorities in emerging and creative partnerships with civil society need to take responsibility for reducing vulnerabilities (physical, cultural, social, environmental and economic). They should also gain access to technological and financial means in order to try to slow down the frequent floods, especially in Cap-Haitien, the capital of the North department.
  • Feeding saltwater into freshwater systems has to be limited in order to prevent further degradation of the ecosystem, and to reduce coastal erosion.
  • A drainage plan for surplus water needs to be drawn up.
  • Structural measures need to be put in place to stabilise land, and fortify towns against the persistent threat of landslides.
  • Detection and early warning systems need to be put in place.
  • A plan for buildings and electricity networks to comply with earthquake resistant standards has to be drawn up and implemented.
  • Efforts need to be multiplied to stem the increasing exposure to natural hazards in a way that benefits from the duality of renewed technical prowess and the increased prevention of vulnerabilities, eventually making the cities of the Haitian Great North a sustainable territory.
  • Resilience is based on preventing damage as far as possible. Therefore, it is imperative to anticipate, mitigate, and manage natural disasters by ways of studying geo-spatial risks and improving risk management.
  • Capacities of actors for disaster interventions in urban contexts need to be strengthened. People working in humanitarian relief today often lack the necessary knowledge and have difficulties, or are at least reluctant to intervene in the city. In order to bring relief to cities, they must have a common vocabulary on what risk management entails and means (crisis, risk, prevention, reconstruction and coordination). They must share the same understanding of the humanitarian situation on the ground and how to respond to it. Finally they must have the necessary skills and knowledge to answer better to population needs.
  • An action plan needs to be developed to combat poverty, including for instance income-generating activities, the development of small and medium-sized industries and small and medium-sized enterprises, and entrepreneurship, which can facilitate job creation.
  • An action plan needs to be developed to reduce inequalities with a focus on gender equality, reducing vulnerabilities of the most-at-risk populations.
  • Elaboration of an urban master plan including appropriate investments for vulnerable urban communities in Haitian cities, for instance for those households displaced by natural disasters.
  • Community awareness and mobilisation campaigns to sensitize the Haitian government and local authorities to risk management, and urban communities (in schools, churches, youth centers, women’s associations, etc.) to the best practices to adopt in a crisis situation.
  • Infrastructure improvements need to be planned and implemented in order to strengthen capacities for a swift response in cases of disasters, and to enable recovery towards inclusive urban development after the crisis.

Joseph Severe
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    Jean Frantz Jure
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      Nicolas Pierre Matthania Jean
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