Allan Lavell: “The cause of the disaster in Haiti is social”

Allan Lavell is one of the world’s top experts on urban and regional planning, and specializes in risk reduction and disaster prevention. He heads the development of DARA’s Risk Reduction Index (RRI), a key project in the Disaster Risk Reduction Initiative (DRRI). With decades of experience working on disaster prevention in Central America and the Caribbean, he is currently collaborating on a study focusing on climate change and natural disasters for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. DARA caught up with him to ask him about the situation in Haiti.

As an expert on urban planning and disaster prevention, what comes to mind when you see the images coming in from Haiti?

Allan Lavell: That this is a worst-case scenario. You have a combination of a high-intensity event — a powerful earthquake near a major city — and a very vulnerable population. Corruption, poverty, informal construction, lack of land planning: all these factors have contributed to make the situation in Haiti unique. What is extraordinary is that even the modern section of the city came down — the presidential Palace, the UN, banks, hospitals, schools. You had the president of the country living in a palace that he did not know was not safe. Everything was badly built. It is also saddening to see now so much sympathy being shown towards a country that no-one had any sympathy for before the earthquake. So many billions were poured on the banking sector, but for Haiti there have only been crumbs.

What could you point to as the main cause of the disaster?

AL: The Pan American Health Organization said it well: Earthquakes don’t kill; falling buildings do. The triggering event was physical, but the root cause of the disaster is social. I cannot say for sure, but I am betting that a much smaller earthquake could also have caused these buildings to fall. The basic problem is inequality and marginalization. The disaster was already there; the Haitian population was living a daily disaster, and then it was compounded by a natural disaster. People knew that if an earthquake hit, Haiti would go to hell. Just as they knew about Katrina. There were no building norms, and construction was fraught with corruption. But as usual, the international community only acts massively in response to disasters. If it had invested in building hospitals and retrofitting schools to withstand disasters, which can be done using low-cost technology, the situation might have been different.

What would you recommend to those who are now debating on how to rebuild Haiti?

AL: There is often a time pressure to rebuild because many of the post-impact funds have to be spent within a short period of time, because of funding cycles. But it is important to conduct urban planning, to build housing that is safe and also culturally acceptable. If people cook outside, don’t build indoor kitchens or they will be rejected. This happened after Hurricane Mitch. Haiti needs multi-hazard buildings, capable of withstanding hurricanes, flooding and earthquakes. There is a danger that those involved in reconstruction will have the mentality that this earthquake was unique, part of a 200-year cycle, and some may say, why invest in safety? But Haiti needs to introduce building norms and do away with corruption in the construction sector. Donors must place these types of conditions. Also, you don’t reconstruct infrastructure for its own sake. You have to give priority to those infrastructures that serve the higher social purpose. So do you rebuild the bridge that had the highest economic value, or the one that the poor used daily to walk to the city and sell their wares? Beyond this, you do not just reconstruct buildings. You must also reconstruct society. As physical rebuilding takes place, a purpose must also be built. The key to recovery in Haiti is the reconstruction of governability.

Given the fact that the Haitian government is practically absent right now, how can the reconstruction of Haiti be sustainable?

AL: By using this as an opportunity to create a viable economy. Before the earthquake, there were very few livelihoods to speak of in Haiti. Most of the population was subsisting on less than a dollar a day, mostly in the informal sector. You can reconstruct buildings, but the population will still be 80 percent poor. So, use people as agents of reconstruction. Haitians need employment and reconstruction can generate it; perhaps it could even be the motor of Haiti´s economy for some time. But attention must be paid to fair wages. In the post-Katrina cleanup, some people were employed at slave-level wages. And in terms of taking control of its own reconstruction, Haiti is in a difficult situation: this is the first disaster since the Tsunami where anyone who wants to get in there, can.

Can you think of other regions of the world that potentially could be as devastated as Haiti unless steps are taken to prevent massive loss of life?

AL: I think that Haiti is in its own category. But Katmandu comes to mind. It is in a seismic area, and has high levels of poverty, as well as rickety buildings on fragile slopes. Quito also worries me; it must work on disaster preparedness, including a viable evacuation plan if there is an eruption from one of the nearby volcanoes. And the Callao Port, a city close to Lima, is vulnerable to the effects of a Tsunami; it was destroyed by one in 1746. The entire Andean region is vulnerable, but there are places that are better prepared, like the small city of Manizales in Colombia, which has a good risk management scheme with an insurance plan that would allow poor people to access resources if they needed to rebuild.