Haiti, Wealth, Earthquakes and Sustainable Development

The strongest earthquake in 200 years rocked Haiti on Tuesday, likely leaving thousands dead including key staff of national aid agencies and the United Nations. Appropriately, the U.S. and other nations have responded with emergency aid, search and rescue resources, and other forms of assistance. According to the New York Times:

“Huge swaths of Haiti‘s capital lay in ruins on Wednesday and thousands of people were feared dead, with untold others buried in the rubble of government buildings, foreign aid headquarters and shantytowns that collapsed a day earlier in a massive earthquake.

“The Haitian president, René Préval, told The Miami Herald that the toll was “unimaginable” and estimated that thousands had died. Among those feared dead were the chief of the United Nations mission in Haiti and Monsignor Joseph Serge Miot, the archbishop of the capital, Port-au-Prince.

“Parliament has collapsed,” Mr. Préval was quoted as saying. “The tax office has collapsed. Schools have collapsed. Hospitals have collapsed. There are a lot of schools that have a lot of dead people in them.”

The earthquake is a dramatic reminder of the role wealth can play in creating social and economic resliance to natural disasters. While a 7.5 scale earthquake can be devastating just about anywhere, wealthier nations and economies have the ability, technology, and potential to develop the technologies that mitigate both the human and environmental toll of these events. California is a case in point, where new buildings have to be constructed to standards capable of withstanding severe earthquakes.

Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, and has been racked by violence and political instability. The economic impact is palpable: per capita income is just $2 per day. Hundreds of thousands of its people live in shanties and slums, and public buildings are not surprisingly poorly constructed.

The role of wealth in enabling human societies to mitigate (and overcome) environmental challenges and by implication insulating human communities from the ravages of natural disasters is implicit in the concept of the Environmental Kuznets Curve. While the empirical estimates of how broadly the curve can be applied to specific environmental problems is unsettled, the idea that wealthy societies have more resources to innovate and adapt technology to address these issues is not. For a good accessible overview, see Matthew Kahn’s Green Cities: Urban Growth and the Environment published by Brookings in 2006.

Now is not the time to be adopting policies, domestically or globally, that make it more difficult to nation’s such as Haiti to grow.