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Op-ed: An earthquake devastated Haiti - but so too did poverty

On the day that Haiti announces preliminary results from last month’s presidential election, the Director of Trocaire reflects on how the country can be helped to equip themselves against future tragedy.

Justin Kilcullen Director of Trocaire

By JUSTIN KILCULLEN, Director of Trocaire

WHAT A DIFFERENCE preparation can make. Over the last number of weeks, we have all been appalled by the terrible stories coming out of Japan in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami that hit the country on 16 March.

Ten thousand dead, thousands more missing, hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses destroyed. What happened in Japan is a tragedy; another terrifying example of how the forces of nature can wreak utter devastation with little or no warning.

The earthquake in Japan was also a reminder to us all of the power of preparation. Fourteen months prior to this terrible incident, an earthquake a full two points less powerful struck Haiti. Within seconds, almost 300,000 people were dead.

How could a significantly weaker earthquake result in over 30 times the number of deaths? The simple answer is that wealthy countries can afford to protect themselves from such disasters. They build earthquake-resistant buildings, constructed with the correct materials, which insulate them from catastrophe.

Collapsed

When disaster struck Japan, the buildings shook from side to side but remained standing. When disaster struck Haiti, virtually the entire capital city collapsed, crushing the life out of the people under it.

There is no doubt that tens of thousands of lives in Japan were saved by top-class engineering. The relatively low death toll from the Japanese earthquake – bearing in mind that most people who died in the disaster were killed by the tsunami – was a triumph for engineering.

Japanese people were saved by their prosperity. The people in Haiti died because of their poverty.

Preparing communities for disaster is a core element of Trócaire’s work. In Haiti, for example, we believe that there is little benefit in building houses for survivors of the earthquake unless those houses are built to withstand similar disasters. Our philosophy is to ‘build back better’ – and the 700 earthquake-resistant houses we are building for families in the Gressier region of Haiti will be testament to that philosophy.

Throughout Latin America, Africa and Asia, Trócaire is working with communities to minimise their vulnerability to earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, droughts, and other natural disasters. In many countries – Honduras and Indonesia, for example – these disasters are cyclical. We know they will happen, even if we do not know the exact dates. Therefore, we must help communities equip themselves to deal with the inevitable.

Impact

Through better housing, better planning, and improved agricultural methods, we can help reduce the impact of natural disasters in these countries.

As the effects of climate change increase, natural disasters are set to become an increasingly frequent feature of life. The international community – and people in Ireland in particular – has been extraordinarily generous in terms of donating money to help communities recover from disasters.
However, as the tens of thousands of Japanese people alive today only because of good preparation will testify, prevention is better than cure.

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About the author:

Justin Kilcullen  / Director of Trocaire

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