Haiti at risk

By Chris Hufstader
Nearly 80 percent of Haiti's population is living in poverty, and those living near the epicenter of a major earthquake in January 2010 were badly affected.

When a magnitude seven earthquake struck Haiti on January 12, 2010, it hit the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Haitians were already struggling to get by before the quake:  just under 80 percent of Haiti’s 9.6 million people live on less than $2 per day and about half of Haiti’s population lacks clean drinking water.

“Natural” disasters?

Whenever an earthquake or hurricane hits, it is the poorest people who face the greatest risks. They often have no choice but to live in substandard housing that is not built to withstand the intensity of a high-magnitude quake or flood. This means poor and marginalized people are often more vulnerable to injury and death. To make matters worse, often those who do survive have the fewest material resources to recover from disasters. While earthquakes and hurricanes cannot be prevented, the fact that poor communities are disproportionately affected is not a natural condition. It is a human-made problem that results from cultural, socio-economic, political, and institutional factors.

Haiti has a painful history of political instability and humanitarian disasters. The country is still recovering from four serious storms that hit within a few weeks of each other in 2008. Hurricanes and earthquakes exacerbate extreme poverty: they damage neglected infrastructure like roads and drinking water systems, and further degrade the environment. The effects of the January 2010 earthquake will be felt long after the initial recovery period. Survivors—making do with limited resources—face years of hard work to recover. However, disaster losses in the short and long term can be substantially reduced by taking measures to decrease peoples’ vulnerability and build their resilience in the face of hazardous events, whether it is improving immediate living conditions or addressing all the underlying causes of poverty that contribute to increased suffering at the time of emergencies.

The past & future

Oxfam has been working in Haiti to create sustainable means of earning a living, help Haitians reduce their vulnerability to disasters, and strengthen and support people’s ability to hold their government accountable. These long-term efforts meant that, when the earthquake hit, we already had staff on the ground ready to work with local organizations to respond to the humanitarian crisis.

No country can fully withstand the impact of an earthquake like the one that has rocked Haiti, especially a nation saddled with deep poverty and minimal infrastructure.  We know that the communities we work with are strong and determined and will respond to this disaster as they have others.  We have a shared responsibility to ensure that Haitians have the resources they need to avoid unnecessary suffering, both now and in the long run.

Help now by donating to our Haiti Earthquake Response Fund.

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