Extreme Makeover

Haiti Edition

by Tom Ligon

I will not take a lot of time describing the current devastation in Haiti. We all know about the earthquake and its tragic consequences, and we know the country was already in dire straits. At the moment, the world is offering generous aid, above and beyond what was already being provided. The support is non-partisan. No doubt, with that help, the majority of Haitians will get thru the immediate crisis. They will bury their dead, patch their lives back together the best they can, and somehow continue to cling to life.

My question right now is, could we do much more, should we do much more, and why should we do it? If Haiti has managed to just get by for decades, is that enough? Is there a good reason why we should seize this tragedy as an opportunity? Is there something in it for us?

My feeling is, if Haiti can be fixed, anything can be fixed. I do not favor fixing what is not broken, but Haiti is clearly broken.

I will take a few words here to mention some of the factors that had already made Haiti the poorest country in the hemisphere. Decades of political problems played a part, the worst of which was under the reign of Francois Duvalier, aka ‘Papa Doc’, and the gangs of thugs he used to terrorize the population, the Tonton Macoute. Papa Doc drove out the Haitian intellectual community, and did all it could to keep the rest uneducated and in superstitious fear. The country is only about a generation past that influence.

Even before Papa Doc came to power, damage from Hurricane Hazel in 1954, and stepped up logging for charcoal production, started a downward slide in the forests of the island. The process has continued to the present, driven by a demand for charcoal for cooking. I have seen estimates that about 98% of Haiti’s forests are gone. This has produced a chain of severe consequences. Without trees, topsoil washes off the mountainous land. And where does it wash? Into the watersheds, where it literally choked the streams and rivers to death. This, in turn has essentially killed the estuaries, which are the nurseries of the marine environment. The sea floor around Haiti falls off rapidly, with essentially no continental shelf, a factor that greatly reduces the productivity of the sea, so loss of productivity of the rivers and estuaries is particularly hard. By cutting down the trees, the country has also severely damaged its agriculture and fishing, and fouled its water supply. It has virtually no indigenous materials with which to rebuild.

Some would argue that the Haitians have brought all this on themselves. The other half of Hispaniola is relatively lush and green, the boundary between Haiti and the Dominican Republic easily visible by color on satellite maps. Other islands in the Caribbean are poor, but still lush, green, and fertile. Why then should we be expected to rescue a that has taken such poor care of itself?

The humanitarian in each of us wants to help the less fortunate. But beyond that, can we find a bit of enlightened self-interest?

I consider Haiti as a fine example of the environmental cost of crushing poverty. People who decry our modern technology-driven lifestyle and yearn to go back to the old ways should take a very careful look at what the old ways do to the land when there are too many people exploiting it with careless abandon. The modern push to use biofuels, for example, frequently neglects the land use required and the competition with food production. Firewood is biofuel, and its inefficient use at a high population density is devastating.

I see an opportunity for Haiti to be a laboratory, a place to test alternative energy technologies, and to employ a number of measures for environmental protection and restoration. The land is so severely impacted we could make mistakes and still improve things. It is small enough for these efforts to be relatively affordable. We have on our table a number of competing alternative energy technologies. If we were to press ahead with developing all or most of them in the United States on a large scale, most would probably fail as the best alternatives emerged. The mistakes would be enormously expensive, and the uncertainty in the outcome holds us back from trying any of them. We need a smaller-scale test bed in which to make mistakes freely.

My neighbors at our weekend place in West Virginia are up in arms over a project to install about sixty huge wind turbines on top of our mountain. A number of nearby ridges already sport them. I’m ambivalent about the things myself. While I consider them far from an ideal solution (I’m a fusion advocate), and at best marginal from an economic standpoint, I have noticed the Electric Power Research Institute does not seem to object to them. The utilities will take the power. At present their usefulness is hampered by an electric transmission grid ill-suited for them, and a lack of suitable storage technology to even out the power supply.

I would like to see a serious consideration of wind power in Haiti. It is small enough that installing and testing an upgraded power grid suitable for wind power would be less painful than on the US mainland, although that small size also makes the system more prone to periods of low output in weak wind. This limitation is actually good for testing, since any test bed should challenge the technology.

The mountains offer the possibility of an energy storage method called pumped storage, essentially building lakes in the mountains and using excess energy to pump water into them, which is released to produce power when the wind is low. Normally these man-made lakes would raise environmental concerns, but in a land already severely damaged they might even help, by trapping sediments and reducing floods. The same storage technology would help if photovoltaic (solar) energy generation were used. Finally, the island has another possible energy resource, the tides. While tides at such low latitude are not huge, the ratio of coastline to interior area is favorable. The economics for renewable energy are more compelling for Haiti and many other island s, where the high cost of importing petroleum, and the severe drain on balance of trade, argue in their favor.

I’ve known about the deforestation problem in Haiti for some decades, and came to the conclusion long ago that solar cookers offer a solution. In Haiti, where the population is so desperately poor that buying imported fuel is not a reasonable option, solar cookers ought to be a good bet. There are efforts underway to put them in service there. SIGMA member David Brin has suggested community kitchens fueled by natural gas as an alternative that is efficient and would avoid further cutting of firewood. These would be a natural in the refugee villages now being created.

Another experiment that is difficult to implement in the United States is competition between alternative energy sources for motor transportation. We have floated ideas for electric cars, hydrogen fuel cells, and various alternative combustion fuels. Each suffers from lack of infrastructure. People here don’t want cars that must stop to recharge every seventy miles or less, especially with a lack of charging stations. They won’t buy hydrogen cars if they are stuck with a single filling station that supplies the fuel. Conventional petroleum fuels, which are widely available and still relatively cheap here, have an enormous advantage that maintains their competitive edge. But in Haiti, where imported fuel is more expensive and harder to pay for in trade, use of domestically-produced electricity from wind, solar, and tides would argue in favor of electric vehicles. Furthermore, the country is small, and owners are unlikely to go on thousand-mile treks the way we do here. Because the country is small and has relatively few motor vehicles, installing infrastructure to test the viability of these transportation technologies would be far less expensive than it would be here, and so less of a risk to try.

What about deforestation? There are already efforts underway to re-plant forests there. I would propose these be expanded. While I usually groan at Al Gore’s ‘carbon indulgences,’ Haiti may be one of the best places to employ them. Regardless of your belief in human-caused global warming, or its relationship to carbon dioxide, the overall health of the environment obviously benefits from a working ecosystem. A properly functioning ecosystem has natural regulation mechanisms. Restoring Haiti’s forests should improve, among other things, rainfall, water retention in the soil, water quality, and food production. Carbon would be tied up not only in the trees, but in newly-produced topsoil.

How would one go about this? I propose it will probably take soil remediation (basically plenty of compost) coupled with intelligent replanting, allowing generations of plant life and soil organisms that mimic natural succession processes. We’re talking about an awful lot of compost here, more than Haiti is likely to produce on its own. I’m thinking this may be an opportunity for US cities to turn their garbage and sludge into a valuable resource. More than a little sensitivity is needed here, and I am not suggesting we use Haiti as a dump. We would need to take care to be sure the stuff is not laced with toxins. We have too much nutrient runoff into our rivers and estuaries in much of the US, but Haiti could probably benefit from a careful widespread application.

New construction would probably be less experimental. We know the Haitians have been using block walls with concrete slabs, and this construction suffered widespread failure in the quake. I have heard a lot of criticism of their lack of building standards, but I shake my head every time I see another East Coast big-box store go up with cinderblock walls. We could already learn from Haiti’s experience in this department.

There would seem to be no compelling reason they could not use more concrete (maybe part of the aggregate could be old blocks from the fallen buildings, crushed). I would suggest new buildings be more quake-tolerant ’tilt-up’ construction of pre-cast reinforced concrete panels. The streets may need to be dug up for sewer and water replacement. David Brin suggests adding a few bonuses such as fiber optics and underground power, and suggests adding some form of efficient rail commuter transit. Fellow fusion advocate ‘MSimon’ upped the ante, recommending giving the school kids laptop computers.

Do consider that the very act of rebuilding the country would employ Haitians in large numbers (who would be happy to work for wages a high school student here would snort at), teaching them new skills and jump-starting their economy. Reports of the recovery effort reveal the number of people who were already in the country promoting education. Haiti does have a generation of literate youngsters coming along. They are about the right age to appreciate jobs in the reconstruction. We have seen other third-world countries bootstrap themselves in this way, including recently in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

Political stability is going to be crucial, and it is has been a long-term problem for Haiti. Corruption and coups have been recurring themes there, and the cycle needs to end. Businesses want a predictable, preferably fair and honest, environment in which to operate. It will be far easier to rebuild the economy if this is the case. I think we are historically better at offering technology, but we actually do have a pretty good record at keeping pressure on government to be honest, and we have been remarkably stable. We should not be shy in offering some guidance in this area.

Should we do this? If we look at the last century and current conditions in Haiti, it is clear that the status quo can only be maintained with continuous and massive aid. If the underlying problems are not corrected, we probably have an expensive ward forever, one that will probably require frequent and often unpleasant interventions. If we ignore the problems, it is interesting to note that China is also providing aid. We really do not want another puppet of a major power from the eastern hemisphere festering in our back yard. If we address the problems aggressively, perhaps we can eventually have a prosperous neighbor.

But how much will all this cost? I have no idea, but let’s get some minds thinking about it. Haiti is a small country, and the people there have exceedingly modest expectations for monetary income. I personally think it would probably cost less than some of the bank bailouts in late 2008, be far more satisfying in the long run, and could teach us a thing or two that we need to know.

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