Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Earthquake in Haiti; An Appeal for Squatters' Rights

The major news of the past week was the earthquake in Haiti, which occurred late afternoon on Tuesday, January 12.

The epicenter was quite close to Port au Prince, and the devastation in that city - and throughout the island - was immense. The current estimates are that 40,000 to 140,000 people were killed and that millions have been left homeless.

In this morning's Times there is a series of short essays with suggestions for rebuilding Haiti. Two in particular caught my attention:

** Robert Neuwirth, who is the author of a book called Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World, says that Haiti's government should be lenient towards squatters as a means to rebuild communities and promote stability (his essay is here). Neuwirth says that worldwide there are approximately 1 billion squatters, and he says that we should do away with a framework in which squatting is a crime: "Squatting is not a crime. Rather than being put in refugee camps, people can seize the initiative and squat in their old communities, without aid groups clamping down on them. This doesn’t mean occupying unsafe houses, but erecting new shacks nearby. This way, families can share food, shelter and skills. And these nascent communities — self-organized and temporary at first — can serve as the building blocks of new neighborhoods."

** Steven Solomon focuses on building water distribution systems that are maintainable at the local level and then making access to them cheap (or completely free): "In rebuilding Haiti’s water systems, it is imperative to focus on simple and affordable local projects that communities can take responsibility for. The network of water and sewer pipes should be built with flexible materials that can be shallowly buried and easily repaired. Bulk sewer services and drinking water should be delivered at wholesale costs to distribution points in urban neighborhoods, where local leaders can handle payments for the service and maintain the local network."


I really like Neuwirth's points about squatting. I am curious as to the general approaches towards squatting in developing countries. Neuwirth says that Mumbai's municipal government has a progressive approach by encouraging (or at least looking the other way with respect to) scavenging: "In Mumbai, India, squatters build and rebuild their homes one wall at a time using materials that they find on the side of the road. Billboards, fence posts, bricks picked up from construction sites, scarred wooden panels: these are all incredibly valuable resources."

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