The Law of Disaster and Displacement in Haiti (Part III)

The third in a three-part series on disaster and displacement in Haiti.  Read the rest of the series: Part I, Part II.

Five years since the earthquake, the number of people living in camps has dropped by over 90%.  Still, between 100,000 – 150,000 remain, and for those that returned to their homes, life remains difficult.  67% of households that were displaced by the earthquake are unable to meet their basic needs, compared to 43% of households that were not displaced.  Families that were displaced are more likely than non-displaced families to report that their living conditions have worsened, that they feel insecure, or that they have poor access to water, sanitation facilities, or healthcare.   Despite a reduction in the number of people living in camps, replacing what was lost during the earthquake and its aftermath remains a struggle. 

Of additional concern though is the prospect of another disaster, be it an earthquake or a hurricane.  The particular legal problems addressed above have received little attention, and what attention has been paid appears not to have made a significant change to realities on the ground.  While the government of Haiti adopted international building codes and construction standards, they are not being stringently enforced and the construction permit system is slow and confusing.  As a result construction has followed the same low-rise, non-engineered concrete block masonry approach that made Port-au-Prince so vulnerable in the first place.  Contributions can be made by increasing the capacity of local engineers, architects, and construction firms to put in place basic building standards that will increase resiliency to natural disasters, and by providing government officers with the tools necessary to enforce what standards do exist. 

Land tenure appears to be reverting to informal arrangements between landowner and occupant as one might predict.  In the absence of comprehensive reform to property law and administration, the Haitian experience can serve as an example to future reconstruction efforts that flexibility is required when working with legal systems that operate in low-income contexts.  The UN-HABITAT’s Guidance for Practitioners on Land and Natural Disasters was developed after the earthquake with lessons learned from Haiti in mind, but still underappreciates the importance of operating in and understanding an environment in which legal order is at a premium. 

Little progress has been done, similarly, to create a legal system for the international community’s response to natural disasters.  A few months after the earthquake, the United States, the Dominican Republic, and other countries in the region resumed deporting Haitian immigrants, despite clear evidence that Port-au-Prince was still in ruins and incapable of supporting a population influx.  Many reports have been written analyzing the relief effort and displacement strategy, but it is not clear that, should another disaster strike Haiti, the coordination or development of the response would be markedly improved. 

Natural disasters foster much public sympathy in their aftermath, but building resilience to reduce disaster risk in the first place is of less urgent concern to many.  The international community, national governments, and local communities would be well served to focus development efforts on building resilience to environmental shocks, including natural disasters and climate change.  A reactive approach that ignores disaster risks and builds back to the status quo creates a moral hazard in which populations are encouraged to settle and remain in high-risk areas.  Haiti would not be the first country to make this mistake, but given that its capital city lies on a faultline and in hurricane alley, it should be clear that resilience planning is of the utmost importance to Haiti’s continued development.  An integral part of this process is a robust legal framework that can support a range of policy options to build resilience, while responding to disasters that do occur with order and effective administration.  The people of Haiti, and displaced populations in particular, have felt the consequences of ignoring disaster risk.  It is imperative that communities around the world take notice and take steps to reduce their vulnerabilities.