Press conference by United Nations Development Programme on Haiti’s earthquake risk reduction plans

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In the wake of the January 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti, the international scientific community had made considerable advances in understanding and mitigating earthquake risks and a major push was under way to integrate those technologies into Haiti’s reconstruction plans at all levels, said a senior scientist with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) at a Headquarters press conference today.

“It often takes a disaster to make major technical strides,” said Eric Calais, a seismologist and senior science adviser with UNDP. Following the Haiti quake, he said, a call for stronger predictive technologies had led to a series of cutting-edge innovations.

For the first time ever, scientists had been able to determine which areas of a country were most susceptible to ground shaking during an earthquake — a major step towards planning and building safer cities. Using that technology, a seismic map of Haiti had been created jointly by UNDP, the Haitian Government, the University of Texas and other international partners, he said, and had been handed off to the Haitian authorities earlier this year.

“It’s really a milestone,” said Mr. Calais, noting that, if properly implemented, Haiti would be able to rebuild a much more quake-resistant capital. As the reconstruction continued, UNDP was working with Haiti’s Ministry of Planning and Public Works to integrate the technology into building plans. Moreover, Haiti — which had long been one of the only countries that lacked its own seismic monitoring system — was now building such a system and learning to maintain it. Mr. Calais said that the goal was to build a “corps of competent Haitian professionals, who can become advocates of risk reduction in their own country”. Haitian universities were also integrating earthquake safety into their curricula, he added.

Mr. Calais, a professor in geophysics at Purdue University who has been working in the Caribbean since 1989, said that last year’s tragic quake “did not come as a surprise” to the scientific community. Much of the Caribbean was susceptible to earthquakes, and Haiti — along with the entire island of Hispaniola — was especially vulnerable, as it sat directly on a seismic plate boundary. Preparedness was often lacking in the region. In the neighbouring Dominican Republic, in particular, the Haitian earthquake had been “a wakeup call” for better risk-reduction plans; its Government was now taking the necessary steps in that direction.

While it was a certainty that more earthquakes would occur throughout the region in the future, added Mr. Calais, “the good news is that we now know what to do about it”. The implementation of appropriate risk reduction plans, including construction aided by the new ground mapping technology, could drastically minimize the effects of future quakes, he said.

In that vein, he responded to a question comparing the effects of Haiti’s 7.0-magnitude quake with Japan’s much larger 9.0-magnitude quake several weeks ago. He said that, had Haiti been as prepared for an earthquake as Japan, the number of casualties could have been reduced from 200,000 to “in the tens” of thousands.

With regard to the pace of Haiti’s reconstruction effort, which had often been criticized in the months following the earthquake, Mr. Calais stressed that Haiti had the lowest human development index in the Western hemisphere — a fact that had contributed both to its lack of preparedness and to its slow recovery. “We have to remember that we are working in the context of the most devastating event that a country has ever experienced, in terms of percentage of the population affected,” he said. In addition, the earthquake had struck at the start of Haiti’s 2010 hurricane season. The country had later been faced with both a cholera epidemic and the pressure of national elections, he noted.

Despite those challenges, Mr. Calais said, Haiti’s Government had been proactive in its efforts to mitigate future disasters. Its work with the scientific community to integrate risk reduction strategies marked a transition “from reaction to action”, he said, expressing his hope that the newly elected Government would continue to recognize the importance of those efforts. He also called on the international community to step up its efforts to help Haiti to move forward.

One correspondent asked about ways to ensure that non-governmental organizations in Haiti — many of which were rebuilding or rehabilitating neighbourhoods without significant Government oversight — were using proper risk reduction techniques. In response, Mr. Calais said that, while no formal mechanism had been created to handle non-governmental organizations, there were now guidelines in place to direct those organizations “through formal Government channels”. Meanwhile, it was important to “reinvigorate” those channels and ensure that they were steering builders in the right direction.

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