Haiti, a small, impoverished Caribbean nation, is slowly coming to terms with the calamitous earthquake of January 12, which measured 7.0 on the Richter scale and was followed by several powerful aftershocks. The toll on human life is estimated at 45,000-50,000 by the Red Cross. With reports of hundreds of bodies piled high outside mortuaries and hospitals, and survivors sleeping among the dead for a fourth successive night, rescue efforts face a big challenge. Most heart-rending is the plight of children, who comprise over 40 per cent of the population of the capital, Port-au-Prince. Haitian President René Préval described the loss of life and the near-total infrastructural damage as “unimaginable,” adding that parliament, the national palace, the tax office, schools, hospitals, and the main prison had collapsed. The damage was heightened by the fact that the quake struck the densely populated area around the capital, comprising nearly three million people in rudimentary slum dwellings that entirely lacked earthquake-resistant construction.

The response of the international community to the terrible humanitarian crisis has been empathetic: the United States has promised $100m, 3,500 troops, and 2,200 marines to help with relief efforts; Britain has pledged £6.15m; France, Spain, and China have joined the effort, sending funds, supplies, and manpower. India must do its part, coming up with a generous assistance package. Yet there are severe problems in reaching aid to the people. While relief efforts are focussed on the immediate tasks of rescuing trapped survivors and providing them with the basics, the post-disaster agenda in the months ahead will be about helping them piece together their shattered lives. The recovery plan must also address the larger challenge of institution-building in one of the most misgoverned and politically volatile nations in the western hemisphere. External, especially U.S., involvement must not exacerbate instability in the coup-laden, dictatorship-prone politics of Haiti. If this troubled nation is to cope better with natural disasters — an imperative given its proximity to the Pacific Ring of Fire -- democracy and responsive governance must take root. Only then will it be possible to lift Haitians out of crippling poverty and rebuild the country’s wrecked infrastructure. In particular, it is vital that future housing construction is in line with best practice in earthquake-proofing -- for example using the lessons on retrofitting structures that came out of the 2005 Kashmir earthquake -- and Haiti’s institutional capacity for disaster response is upgraded.

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