It is well known that the two Chinese characters that comprise the word “crisis” translate into English as “danger” and “opportunity.” In the world of disaster relief and humanitarian aid, dangers are typically identified and dealt with expediently: get in, save lives, ensure stability, and deal with outstanding issues later. The approach is not a bad one—it prioritizes and puts first things first.
In this triage process, however, the environment is often overlooked as a key stakeholder, which can lead to further dangers down the road. But expanding the purview of humanitarian work to include the environment and long-range sustainability can create the opportunity to rebuild communities that are more environmentally and socially sustainable than those that existed before the disaster.
Recently, the Environmental Change and Security Program of the Woodrow Wilson International Center hosted the launch of the Green Recovery and Reconstruction Training Toolkit (GRRT), a collaboration between the American Red Cross and the World Wildlife Fund. The GRRT comprises 10 modules aimed at the various facets of aid work, examining everything from project design to supply chains and livelihoods through the lens of sustainability. Over the past five years, the partnership has helped survivors of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami rebuild their communities as well as the natural environments on which they depend.
Here at Worldwatch, we see this as an excellent opportunity to help promote the idea of sustainable development, particularly as we move forward with a plan to develop a Low-Carbon Energy Roadmap for Haiti, a country whose recent earthquake and other disasters pose daily dangers and opportunities.
Like many island states, Haiti has little-to-no fossil fuel resources. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, the 4.3 million barrels of oil that Haiti imported in 2007 cost the country US$ 424 million, or 28 percent of its total import bill. Given the extreme fluctuation of oil prices in recent years, such oil dependence has led to price shocks, lack of available funds for investment in other sectors (education, etc.), and overly strained government finances. And, of course, this arrangement contributes to the ever-present spectre of climate change.
And it might continue.
Haiti’s plight is well documented, and considerable resources are being funneled into the country to help it recover from the January 2010 earthquake and its aftermath. Key to this recovery is access to energy that can power the country’s fledgling health, water, and sanitation services. But much of that energy is coming from diesel-powered generators, which are nothing more than a quick-fix. Without a more sustainable approach to long-range planning, this quick-fix runs the risk of becoming permanent and costly.
As it is, Haiti can barely afford the cost of diesel, and the challenge of supplying this energy source will only grow as the global economy continues to recover and as the price of oil rises. So while organizations work furiously to capitalize on the influx of aid, they run the risk of failing to truly move Haiti forward with respect to its energy infrastructure.
According to Robert Laprade, Senior Director of Emergencies and Humanitarian Assistance at CARE, most aid workers, when asked, did not consider the environment when implementing aid solutions mostly because it had never really been thought of before. During the GRRT’s unveiling on November 19th, he noted that many aid workers feel that they simply do not have the skills necessary to effectively factor the environment into their efforts. If this lack of sustainability awareness continues, workers may end up exacerbating an already tenuous situation.
Another important finding shared during the GRRT presentation was that if environmental sustainability had been part of addressing the crisis in Darfur, Sudan, the “temporary” Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) settlements that have become more long-term would not now be facing the extra burden of a diminishing water supply. Peter Walker, Director of the Feinstein International Center and Rosenberg Professor of Nutrition and Human Security at Tufts University, noted that if the IDP settlement had been an actual development project, water table analysis would have been one of the first aspects considered. As it stands now, thousands of people face an even more complicated crisis because a longer view was not taken.
For Worldwatch, the GRRT comes at a propitious moment. It underscores the effort that the Institute is about to undertake to provide the Haitian government with a Low-Carbon Energy Roadmap. This plan will provide policymakers with the information necessary to rebuild Haiti’s demolished energy infrastructure with improved efficiency and a greater presence of renewable sources.
Before this year’s earthquake, Haiti produced 469 GWh of electricity for its roughly 9 million citizens. (Its neighbor, the Dominican Republic, has roughly the same population size but generated 14,839 GWh.) Haiti’s electrification rate was a paltry 36 percent. Given the recent devastation, these figures have diminished considerably. But with the right paradigm shift, humanitarian and development work can help the country make a true break with the past.
We feel that our forward-looking plan dovetails nicely with the GRRT’s intention: win-win solutions that take the environment and sustainability into consideration. And recent trends show that this more sustainable approach not only has the most impact, it is one that donors are more likely to support. According to Mr. Walker, as recently as 2007 almost 40 percent of all humanitarian funding went to projects lasting more than eight years.
By partnering with technology firms specializing in geographic information systems (GIS), Worldwatch will be able to help industry and government officials coordinate ongoing low-carbon development activities that can help increase investor confidence in new projects in the region. These projects will lead to new jobs, cleaner energy production, increased energy security, and lower costs for Haiti’s government, which can in turn use the savings to invest in other sectors of the economy.
In the wake of a crisis, one of the biggest dangers facing Haiti is reverting to an energy policy and infrastructure that is antiquated, unsustainable, and a bad fit for the 21st century. It is a danger that many have seen but few seem willing to address. The opportunity exists for Haiti to reinvent itself and address the country’s energy needs with foresight. Our hope is that by delivering a Low-Carbon Energy Roadmap, we will help the country build a truly new and better foundation instead of plastering over the old, broken one.