Haiti earthquake: Out of great disasters comes great opportunity

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A collapsed building in Port-au-Prince. Photo by IFRC/Eric Quintero under a Creative Commons license.

The scale and magnitude of the earthquake in Haiti has shocked, saddened and horrified us all. But there is a silver lining to this great tragedy. Looking back in history, great natural disasters are often a catalyst for huge, positive change.

The great fire of London in 1666 led to a massive rebuilding effort, better building regulations and, in the end, a safer, cleaner city that maintained the medieval street plan that is still visible, to some extent, today. The Wall Street Journal has an interesting discussion of how the impact of the 1755 earthquake in Lisbon led to the creation of a new metropolis with earthquake-proof buildings, wide thoroughfares and a sewer system. The massive reconstruction financing required after the great fire of Copenhagen of 1795 led to the creation, in 1797, of Kreditkassen for Husejere i Kjøbenhavn (The Credit Association of Copenhagen homeowners), the precursor of modern mortgage markets.

The 2004 tsunami that hit Indonesia and the province of Aceh is a similar, recent catastrophe from which we can draw valuable lessons and some challenges in the long haul ahead in the massive reconstruction effort that will be needed to rebuild Port-au-Prince. The tsunami claimed about 167,000 lives and destroyed schools, houses, churches, roads and livelihoods.  The Multi-Donor Fund (MDF) managed by the World Bank with contributions and guidance from 15 other international donor partners is considered by many a model for success. The greatest success of the MDF was the strong partnership with the communities, placing them front and center in the entire reconstruction effort. The biggest challenge today, however, has been the successful transition and hand-off of to the local authorities as well as a transition from a “pure” reconstruction effort to a longer-term sustainable and viable development strategy.

So what are the lessons for the authorities in Haiti? By a somewhat tragic coincidence, the World Bank has just completed its Handbook for Housing Reconstruction after Disasters based on an in-depth assessment of the reconstruction effort after major disasters over the past two decades.

While avoiding being prescriptive (each major disaster is unique) the Handbook has ten major principles that should be at the core of the reconstruction effort. These include putting in place early a reconstruction policy that is inclusive, equity-based, and focused on the vulnerable; having reconstruction policy and plans that are financially realistic but ambitious with respect to disaster risk reduction; and understanding that people affected by a disaster are not victims; they are the first responders during an emergency and the most critical partners in reconstruction.


Abhas Jha

Practice Manager, Climate Change and Disaster Risk Management, South Asia Region

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