Lighting the way forward in Haiti
Wired to the trunk of a mango tree in a junkyard-turned-camp along Jacmel’s devastated Rue la Comédie is a shining example of Haitian ingenuity.
At eye level, a section of bark has been outfitted with a junction box and light switch, the flipping of which provides camp residents with a momentary reminder of what it feels like to live in a real house with amenities. It also opens up the stolen feed of electricity that powers the lone fluorescent bulb dangling from a wire woven among the mango leaves.
Hanging there on its own, that one light looks harmless – an understandable misdemeanour given the recent bad fortune here. Wrapped up in its symbolism, though, is this country’s greatest barrier to development: Haiti has a power problem.
Left unsolved, many fear the shortage of electricity will fatally undermine two key pillars of the reconstruction plan for the quake-ravaged country: the decentralization of Port-au-Prince, where most of the country’s population and commerce were previously concentrated; and the building up of economies in Haiti’s underdeveloped but promising southern region, which stands a chance of truly flourishing with the establishment of new industrial hubs and tourist resort destinations.
“Without energy, all of what they want to create can’t happen,” said Han van der Vlugt, a project manager for Symbion Power, a Washington company specializing in electrical infrastructure projects in conflict and other unstable zones. He is currently in discussions with Haiti’s struggling national electrical utility in Port-au-Prince.
“I don’t hear anybody talking about energy,” he said. “I’m kicking on doors and reminding them that without power, you can’t do anything.”
That had become painfully evident long before January, when the earthquake dealt the national electricity provider, Électricité d’Haiti (EDH), a $40-million blow by crushing a huge chunk of its wobbly infrastructure in Port-au-Prince. Haiti already had the lowest rate of electricity coverage in the Western Hemisphere. Only about one-quarter of the population had access to power; only half of those were bona fide customers who actually paid their bills. The other half were split into two factions: those who illegally siphoned electricity because they were too poor to pay, and those simply too disgruntled with EDH’s subpar service to bother.
In spite of the influx in recent years of tens of millions of dollars worth of international funding – including more than $34-million from the Canadian International Development Agency – the utility has consistently failed to recoup its costs of production, which moves in step with the price of oil because of the country’s reliance on imported fuel to power the generators responsible for three-quarters of the electrical supply.
Operating at a loss has forced persistent rationing. In the cities where EDH operates – there is no national power grid to link them together – the lights only come on for between six and 16 hours a day, even for those who pay their bills. Most functioning businesses have backup gasoline-powered generators.
The situation is particularly frustrating for people in Jacmel, who have long stopped boasting of the “City of Light” nickname their city won in 1925, when it became the first in the Caribbean to have electricity.
“Now to have a refrigerator is a luxury,” confessed Richelet Mercure, the director of EDH in Jacmel. Working out of a tented office a few yards away from the three generators that suck back 650 litres of fuel an hour to power Jacmel, Mr. Mercure spends his days explaining brownouts to irritated customers who come to protest their bills – some of the most expensive in Haiti.
“The reason there is no electricity is because people don’t pay on time or at all,” he said. “Or the gas isn’t delivered on time. But if everyone paid regularly we’d be able to deliver.”
There is precedent to support that.
Between 2000 and 2004, with the help of a CIDA-funded team of experts that fixed broken machinery and devised a formula to balance the books, EDH was able to provide power in Jacmel around the clock, seven days a week.
“People were paying the right price for electricity and, in return, they received good quality service,” said Louis Verret, CIDA’s director of programming for Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Mr. Verret said CIDA spent around $15-million on its Jacmel project, which began in 1998. But the onset of political instability in 2004 (which marked the resignation of president Jean-Bertrand Aristide), combined with rising fuel prices and the reluctance of Haiti’s interim government to raise electricity prices forced the utility into running a deficit. It also forced the CIDA project’s derailment.
In spite of that, Mr. Verret said EDH officials in Jacmel could restore 24-hour power if EDH were to charge consumers a price sufficient to recoup its costs. It would also have to convince consumers that the service is worth paying for.
If EDH can manage to balance its books in Jacmel, the utility’s next challenge will be to launch into a much-needed expansion phase to bring electricity to the growing communities along the coast east of Jacmel. Doing so could markedly enhance efforts to draw people away from decimated Port-au-Prince.
However, private citizens and businesspeople who have been inquiring about extending lines outside of Jacmel’s city limits – particularly in areas ripe for small factories – are routinely told that EDH can’t afford to do the work.
In Marigot, a fishing community east of Jacmel, a group of women who recently relocated from Port-au-Prince are in the midst of lobbying EDH to extend power to the area. With electricity, more people could easily be drawn from the city.
“Port-au-Prince is a place that should really be abandoned,” Ms. Salgado said. “Extending services into the countryside should be a top priority. They need power here or these kids … will never now how to use a computer.
“That’s not fair,” she said.
Businesspeople working to boost Jacmel feel the same way. Roland Zenny, chairman of the local chamber of commerce, said that without reliable power Jacmel’s economy will remain stalled.
“How am I supposed to sell my industrial park if there’s no power?”
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