Haiti's tragedy

Even those unpractised in the ritualistic arts of Voodoo, still popular in Haiti today, might be forgiven for imagining the country is cursed.

The devastating earthquake that has all but demolished the capital of Port-au-Prince is just the latest calamity to strike the small Caribbean island nation.

With a population of 9 million, 2-3 million in Port-au-Prince, and a land mass about a 10th the size of New Zealand, most of which is given over to subsistence farming, Haiti is reckoned to be one of the poorest countries in the world.

It has a life-expectancy of 60.8 years and 78% of the people live on less than $2 a day.

Its history reads like an exhaustive catastrophe catalogue.

Four tropical storms killed about 800 people in 2008, there were killer storms in 2005 and 2004, floods in 2007, 2006, 2003 and 2002.

Since the turn of the 21st century, aid agencies have attended to 15 "disasters" in the country, with more than 3000 people killed and millions displaced.

A cursory inspection of the former French colony's earlier narrative reveals more of the same.

Even so, the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that struck Port-au-Prince on Wednesday is likely to go down in history as Haiti's ground zero.

For it is becoming apparent this is a humanitarian catastrophe of the gravest nature.

Not only is much of the capital's built-up area razed, with most major buildings either collapsed or seriously damaged, but large tracts of the shantytown suburbs have been reduced to rubble.

Furthermore, it is clear the very structure of government, law and order has been destroyed.

This is - or was - a city densely populated to the point of overcrowding in poorly constructed habitation.

Estimates of the casualties vary widely, ranging from 30,000 to more than 100,000, but with some predicting far worse.

Dennis Mileti, a seismic safety commissioner for the state of California, and author of the book Disasters by Design, said in the wake of the quake that the factors disaster experts deploy to identify country vulnerability are as bad as they can be for Haiti.

"It doesn't get any worse. I fear this may go down in history as the largest disaster ever, or pretty close to it," he told the Associated Press on Thursday.

If true, this would mean a toll in excess of 250,000 - according to the US Geological Survey, the 2004 Asian tsunami killed 227,000 and a 1976 earthquake in China, 255,000 - but even this figure is dwarfed by the predictions of prominent Haitian senator Youri Latortue, who feared as many as 500,000 might have perished.

The actual numbers scarcely matter.

This is, incontrovertibly, a shocking calamity and it must be hoped that aid organisations, and the prompt pledges of assistance by, among others, the United States, can be mobilised effectively.

There were signs yesterday of a massive relief effort including medical, search and rescue and reconstruction teams, beginning to arrive by air and by sea.

A great many lives - of the wounded, the hungry and the homeless, as well as some of those who may yet be rescued from the rubble - will depend on this, for at present health facilities are rudimentary and temporary shelter almost non-existent.

The experience of similar disasters is that without shelter along with fresh food and clean water, disease, too, will soon exact a toll.

Haiti faces a dangerous vacuum in security and government; President Rene Preval's weak and under-resourced government is not equipped to handle the crisis, ministries are in disarray and officials have vanished, perhaps themselves victims.

Inevitably, the US will become the de facto decision-maker in Haiti.

The simple answer to the question of why Haiti should be so afflicted will point to a combination of geography, geology and bad luck.

Haiti exists on a well-beaten Caribbean hurricane path, and also sits on a tectonic plate boundary, not unlike this country.

But it is more complex than that.

There are other factors including extreme poverty, social problems and intermittent political instability - which in turn give rise to substandard housing, inadequate infrastructure, poor medical facilities, low literacy rates and malnutrition.

The cataclysmic earthquake in Port-au-Prince is not merely a "natural" disaster, the perennial and malevolent combination of physical and human conditions making the nation especially vulnerable to the most perfect and fatal of storms.

As aid efforts pour in to address the immediate aftermath of this terrible event, some constructive thought needs to be given to Haiti's longer term future - if, indeed, it is to have one.

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