Haiti’s path to building resilience to multiple disaster risks in a fragile context

Haiti is highly vulnerable to disasters and severe climate events, with over 96 percent of the population exposed to at least two different hazards, such as hurricanes, flooding, and earthquakes. These threats are compounded by high poverty levels, the vulnerability of critical infrastructure, unregulated urban expansion, and the fragility of government institutions including agencies dedicated to responding to disaster risks. 

The human and economic impacts of disasters in Haiti have been extremely severe, and climate change is expected to increase the frequency and severity of hydrological and meteorological hazards, as climate projections for the Caribbean estimate that ocean temperatures could rise by as much as 2.3 degrees Celsius by 2060, which would lead to increased cyclone intensity. In 2016, Hurricane Matthew affected over two million people, resulted in over 500 deaths, displaced 175,000 Haitians, and caused losses and damages estimated at 32 percent of the gross domestic product in 2015.

Haiti’s social and economic fragility jeopardizes its efforts to strengthen resilience and improve the effectiveness of its response mechanisms. Systemic issues as well as civil unrest have severely impaired the country’s ability to prepare for and respond to risks, the consequence being that disaster risks often reinforce each other, magnifying socio-economic challenges, and putting any gains from economic development at constant risk from another shock. The COVID-19 pandemic is further aggravating the country’s social and economic vulnerabilities and compounding its exposure to hazards.

To address these institutional weaknesses, the Haitian government and its partners have underscored the following priorities in their efforts to bolster the country’s disaster risk management (DRM) capacities: (i) improving the understanding of risk to multiple hazards to improve decision-making; (ii) strengthening DRM governance systems at national and local levels; (iii) strengthening disaster preparedness and response mechanisms; (iv) guiding planning and investments in risk reduction in specific economic sectors; (v) strengthening disaster risk financing and insurance tools; and (vi) integrating innovative approaches that take into account gender and behavioral approaches to address societal disparities in the DRM sector.

Key initiatives that have been undertaken include the delivery of geospatial data collection tools, the deployment of Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR), a highly advanced and innovative remote sensing technology that has been used to produce digital terrain models, as well as the development of open data platforms such as HaitiData.org, which disseminates geographic information systems (GIS) data and cartographic data to ministries, NGOs, the international community, academia and the private sector. All these efforts have proven critical to Haiti’s efforts to strengthen decision making, public investment and planning around disaster and emergency preparedness and response. For instance, the geospatial data collected has been key to not only creating a registry of emergency shelters, but also gathering data on the location of schools and road networks across the country. Combined with hazard and population data, this data helped enable the National Center for Geo-spatial information (in French, Centre National de l’Information Géo-Spatiale, or CNIGS) deploy two drone teams to assess the worst-hit areas and produce an accurate damage model in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew.

These efforts have received coordinated support from the World Bank and the European Union (EU), through the EU-funded Caribbean Regional Resilience Building Facility and the Africa, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP)-EU Natural Disaster Risk Reduction Program, both managed by the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery.

“Thanks to the support of the World Bank and the European Union, key investments were made in spatial data production, open data platforms, and technical training, to the advantage of DRM activities in Haiti,” emphasized Mr. Boby Emmanuel Piard, the Director-General of the CNIGS.

Another positive advancement made possible through Haiti’s partnership with the World Bank and the European Union has been the strengthening of national institutions specializing in DRM activities. One of the key efforts undertaken has been the development of a dedicated data platform for hydrometeorological data developed by the World Meteorological Organization that has since been used by key stakeholders from Haiti’s agriculture sector, as well as the General Directorate for Civil Protection. The Director of the Hydrometeorological Institute of Haiti (in French, Unité Hydrométéorologique d’Haïti, or UHM), Mr. Marcelin Esterlin, is confident that these efforts will provide the agency with “the necessary tools and human resource capabilities to develop value-added products that meet the expectations of different types of clients and contribute to enhancing the country’s resilience to climate change.”

Despite multiple challenges from compounding natural hazards, Haiti has made considerable progress in strengthening its resilience by specifically targeting and consistently improving its DRM-specialized institutions. With assistance from the World Bank and the European Union, it has done so by adopting technological innovations that greatly facilitate the work of these institutions, and by investing in the human resources that power them. Moving forward, Haiti will continue to benefit from technical assistance that enables the Haitian government to work towards its objectives to strengthen the country’s resilience to climate and disaster shocks.