Haiti’s (Solar) Power
Michele Pierre-Louis, former Prime Minister of Haiti and current director of the Open Society Institute’s (OSI) reconstruction efforts in the country wrote a piece called, “My Pride and Hope for Haiti,” which was published in the Huffington Post and on OSI’s website. In it, she talks about the apocalyptic and inhumane conditions that people have been forced to live in since the earth quake struck. But also about the pride and sense of community that is just as visible. Her closing line, which has stuck with me since I first read it was, “I am more convinced than ever that we should put the country back together not as it was but as it should be.”
The tragedy of “natural” disasters of course is that they aren’t necessarily natural in their damage. Yes, in the Siberian tundra or the middle of the ocean, bad storms can happen, trees will fall, but once there are heavily populated areas involved, the exponential destruction stemming from that single natural event becomes the real issue. Multiply population density by existing socio-economic conditions that have at times led to less than sound construction (and inhumane living conditions before a quake) and your disaster seems like the opposite of natural. It is beyond belief.
There has been no shortage of opportunities to witness the situation on the ground. Photoblogs, articles, even google-earth have allowed the most distant onlooker to see the events unfold. But once the debris is cleared, services are somewhat restored and mourning for the lives lost becomes tangible through tributes, memorials and other initiatives, Haiti has an opportunity to rebuild itself the way it could have been. Much of the built environment was lacking structurally sound components. Buildings with too much sand in the concrete mix were the norm. Reinforcement beams were scarce. Architecture for Humanity has started a fund raising campaign to bring their design services to the country once it is ready to reconstruct. But for now, there are a few signs of (solar) light shining.
As reported on World Changing’s website, quite an array of solar powered gadgets have supported recovery efforts in Haiti. The ZTE corporation of China has donated 1,500 solar cellphones, SolInc, an American solar streetlight company has donated lights that are being used in makeshift hospitals and camps, and Sun Ovens are cooking up to 1200 meals a day, all with the power of the sun. (You can spend $40 to have a solar oven shipped down with Sun Ovens International.) But all of these developments occurred as people lined up to charge their phones at diesel powered generators. And a sense of panic was certainly added by the concern that diesel was running out. Similar to pre-quake Haiti (and much of the rest of the world) solar is still a small slice of the electricity providing pie.
The idea that Haiti can be re-built on more solid ground is sort of a more positive way to interpret the words of Milton Friedman. Of course he was talking about an infusion of free markets and not renewable energy, but he said, “only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change.” And changes must be made quickly to prevent a post-trauma society from returning to the “tyranny of the status quo.” I’m not going to discuss the tyranny of reliance on petroleum here. But rather focus on the fact that there has obviously been an actual (not perceived) crisis. And a tropical island, with plenty of sun and badly damaged energy infrastructure is an ideal place for solar and wind energy development. Not to mention that the rainy season could probably harvest a significant amount of water for local use. I am not an expert on the specifics of Haiti, but it is quite probable that a whole host of radical changes can be made to its urban centers, specifically Port-Au-Prince to rebuild it better than it was from an urban ecological services perspective. Ranging from waste management to renewable energy usage, there are opportunities that should not be lost among the wreckage.
Haiti, like any other nation–developing or developed– had problems before the quake. But I, like Michele Pierre-Louis, hope that this crisis paves the way for a resilience that will last and a Haiti that sets a shining (solar) example.