Helen Clark remarks for the Inauguration of Plan Nord Project Activities (texte disponible uniquement en anglais)

23 mars 2012

Remarks by Helen Clark
Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme
on the occasion of the ceremony of validation of the
“Seismic risk reduction plan for northern Haiti”

Hostellerie Roi Christophe, Cap-Haitien,
Haiti Friday, 23 March 2012

Mister Minister, members of government, members of diplomatic community, distinguished guests, on behalf of the United Nations Development Programme, I would like to thank you for joining us today at the ceremony of validation of the “Seismic risk reduction plan for northern Haiti”.

It is a pleasure to be here in Cap-Haitien to reiterate the importance of the “seismic risk reduction plan for northern Haiti”, a flagship project for UNDP and its national partners. This project is a joint venture between UNDP and the National System for Disaster Risk Reduction, under the Ministry of the Interior and it is one of the first times in a developing country that measures are being taken ahead of time to reduce the vulnerability of the population and its economy to future earthquakes. In many ways, this project is a historical landmark and this is to the credit of the Haitian government, which understood the earthquake threat in northern Haiti and decided to engage a proactive strategy of risk reduction in order to avoid a similar tragedy to that which struck Port-au-Prince and its region on 12th January 2010.

It often takes a disaster for the engagement of drastic risk reduction measures to take place – this is true for many countries, including developed ones. The 12thJanuary 2010 earthquake was in many ways a wake-up call for Haiti – and for the world in general – as it showed how exposed the country was to major earthquakes and how ill-prepared it was to face them. Scientists know very well the threat that is faced in northern Haiti, with a seismically active fault line just a few kilometers offshore, very close to major urban centers and up and coming economic developments areas.

Indeed, the magnitude 8 earthquake that struck the region in 1842 is direct evidence of this threat. This particular event is estimated to have killed about 50% of the population of Cap Haitien and caused tremendous damage to Port-de-Paix, Fort Liberté, as well as further east into the Dominican Republic. Since then, the rarity of significant earthquakes has given a false impression of security, leading to a lack of concern and interest by the population and decision makers. However, because of the “Seismic risk reduction plan for northern Haiti”, this situation is thankfully now changing.

Although scientists have no way of telling when the next earthquake will hit, they all agree that the level of threat in northern Haiti is high. At the same time, the northern departments are continuing in their efforts to develop the region – through investment in critical infrastructure, energy facilities and new public buildings. The urban population continues to growing, but still without proper urban planning or construction practices for hosting families and economic activities.

Northern Haiti is poised to play a key role in the decentralization that is part of the post-12th January 2010 regional and economic rebuilding for the country. In particular, tourism represents a strategic development opportunity thanks to the amazing coastline and landscape, as well as to the rich cultural heritage found in thi part of the country. As well as this, the recent international investments in the Caracol-Fort Liberté economic development area means that the region has a bright future as a manufacturing centre that is set to attract factories and tens of thousands new inhabitants.

But, in order to be sustainable, all these investments must include from their conception, the reality of the earthquake hazard and of other natural threats such as floods, hurricanes, landslides, or tsunamis. It would be irresponsible to invest the hundreds of millions of dollars necessary to develop Northern Haiti making it into an attractive pole for economic activity without ensuring the safety of that investment in the face of natural hazards. The “Seismic risk reduction plan for northern Haiti” will therefore help local and national authorities face this challenge.

Because of its geographical situation, Haiti is exposed to floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis and landslides. These threats must all be considered together in order to minimize losses during extreme events. Although much remains to be done, tremendous improvements have been made concerning hurricane preparedness and response. Maps of flood hazard exist and a warning system is now being put in place. The major gap to start filling, remains that of the earthquake threat, for which the country is still ill-prepared.

This is why the Government of Haiti and UNDP decided to engage in seismic risk reduction. Much is happening already in the Port-au-Prince region, with seismic zoning, better construction practices being put in place, and the undertaking of training courses for masons and engineers. The good practices from these initiatives in the Port-au-Prince region must now be exported to northern Haiti in order to help prepare the region for an event that will eventually materialize; and indeed, the “Seismic risk reduction plan for northern Haiti” is the vehicle through which this can take place.

Engaging on seismic risk reduction requires courage because it is a long-term endeavor. We know from experience in other countries that there is no “silver bullet” solution capable of reducing vulnerability to earthquakes in just a few years. We know, however, that medium to long-term solutions exist. The example of the Chilean earthquake of March 2010, which caused no less than 600 fatalities – although it was 500 times more powerful that the January 12 Haiti earthquake – shows that applying those solutions and proactively engaging on earthquake risk reduction does pay off. In 2010, the Haitian Government asked UNDP’s advice to define a “roadmap to seismic safety” for the country. This roadmap argues for an integrated approach that goes from improving hazard identification to strengthening response capacities. It includes technical aspects such as construction and training, institutional aspects such as public policies for informed land use planning, as well as public education and outreach. The “Seismic risk reduction plan for northern Haiti” is the direct translation of this roadmap to the field level, though it is only a beginning.

The project, within its 3 years life cycle will only be able to initiate new practices and policies. It will however work, from day one, on the sustainability and generalization of its activities within national and decentralized institutions beyond its lifetime.

My current visit comes a little over two years after my previous visit, when I accompanied the Secretary General of the United Nations, Mr. Ban Ki-Moon, to Port au Prince in the immediate aftermath of the tragic earthquake of 12 January 2010. During that visit, I was able to see at first hand the devastating effects of the earthquake and I was moved by the desolation and suffering faced by the Haitian people.

Indeed, the 12th January 2010 earthquake resulted in more than 200,000 casualties and cost close to 100% of Haiti’s GDP – and science tells us that similar events will continue to strike Haiti in the future. Clearly, no country can afford such recurring costs – in particular developing countries whose economy and governance are already suffering so much. This tells us, evidently, that natural hazards, if not handled properly, are an impediment to development. The positive aspect, though, is that the technical solutions to face these hazards through risk reduction measures are known. Earthquake disasters can be avoided through proper urban planning and construction practices, training of the academic and professional workforce, operation of seismic monitoring systems, and public education and outreach.

The “Seismic risk reduction plan for northern Haiti” is the first step toward applying those solutions. Let us therefore work together, UNDP, the Ministry of Interior, all other stakeholders, as well as international organizations within or outside of the United Nations system to make this historical endeavor a long-term success.

I thank you for your attention.