A Haitian Commune Lost Power in a 2021 Earthquake. It Hasn’t Been Back Since.

ROSE HURGUELLE POINT DU JOUR, GPJ HAITI

Abaky Labossière welds at his workshop in downtown Maniche, Haiti. Abaky powers his business by generator since an August 2021 earthquake destroyed his workshop and Maniche’s only power-generating hydroelectric plant.

By Rose Hurguelle Point du Jour, Global Press Journal, April 19, 2024

Abaky Labossière welds a car engine in his workshop in Maniche, a commune 201 kilometers (125 miles) from Port-au-Prince. It’s been 14 years since the blacksmith returned to his hometown from the capital, after an earthquake killed over 200,000 people in Haiti in January 2010. Port-au-Prince suffered extensive damage and the father of four lost his house and job. Abaky, 42, returned to Maniche to start over and opened a workshop where he began making iron stoves to meet local needs. “It was a success,” he says, “and I was able to get back on my feet quickly.”

But in August 2021, disaster struck again.

Another earthquake destroyed the Saut Mathurine hydroelectric plant, the sole supplier of electricity to Maniche. Since then, Maniche hasn’t had electricity, and the blackout has forced residents to abandon activities that require power. Others, like Abaky, have had to find alternatives.

“To continue living, I had to rent a generator for 3,000 [Haitian] gourdes a day, and I have to buy fuel,” he says. “I know I have to work to rent the generator and the fuel, but at least with the little I have left, I can take care of my family.”

The United States dollar remains unstable on the Haitian market, but at the current rate, 1 dollar is equivalent to 132 gourdes. This means Abaky has to pay about 23 dollars a day to rent the generator, in addition to the costs of fuel, whose price is also unstable.

Long before the 2021 earthquake, Maniche and Camp-Perrin, a neighboring commune, had no more than 10 hours of electricity per day. Though inadequate, the supply powered businesspeople and other domestic electricity users. When it was operational, the hydroelectric plant often had problems like engine failure and lack of fuel to run, which were blamed for the low power supply. But the situation worsened after the earthquake damaged the plant, causing a total power outage in the two communes.

Since then, the streets of Maniche have remained littered with poles and wires, with little or no sign that power will return anytime soon. Haiti has for months been in the grip of violent gangs that have killed and injured hundreds. According to a report by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN Human Rights), 1,544 people were killed in the first three months of 2024, and 826 injured as of late March. With the resignation of former Prime Minister Ariel Henry in March and no functional government, there is no telling when electricity will be restored. While the mountainous commune remains relatively peaceful, protests routinely block roads into the nearest big town, making it difficult for movement in and out of Maniche.

Geordany Bellevue, 34, a lawyer and teacher in Maniche, has to go to a friend’s house to plug in his computer. “I don’t have the means to buy a solar charging system,” he says. “I would need a lot of American dollars. At the risk of missing important calls, I charge my computer and my phone at a friend’s house. That way I don’t have to pay.”

This is not the case for Rosie Arius, a student at Maniche University College who lives an hour from the city center. “Not only do I have to walk for almost an hour, but I also have to have money. Otherwise I can’t charge my phone,” she says. When she needs to study in the evening, Arius will often use an oil lamp made of sheet metal, fitted with a wick. To iron her uniform, she uses a charcoal-heated tin iron.

“It’s a real ordeal for us without electricity in our homes,” she says.

While living without electricity is a nightmare for most Maniche residents, those that can afford solar charging systems are taking advantage of the situation to open businesses — selling cold drinks and ice cream, and recharging electronic devices.

“I manage to charge about 100 phones a day for 50 gourdes [about 38 cents] each. I also charge lightbulbs, phone backups, computers and even rechargeable fans. Each device has a fixed charging price. I can also sell a lot of cold drinks when it’s hot,” says Jhonny Montumer, a young entrepreneur from Maniche. He sometimes charges phones for free for relatives, or strangers who don’t have the means to pay. “I won’t let 50 gourdes be the reason why someone has to go home without recharging their phones,” he says. “Sometimes it’s the only distraction they have or the only way to communicate with their family.”

Maniche got electricity in 2001, through a three-phase connection to the Saut Mathurine power plant. A Haitian company, ELMECEN, coordinated with Haiti’s electric utility, Electricité D’Haïti (EDH), to build the plant’s 11-kilometer (7-mile) network. Construction began in 1980. At the time, Camp-Perrin’s population was about 10,000 households and Maniche was not yet on the grid.

“People were skeptical and only began to believe in it when the first shipment of poles arrived,” recalls Senator Pierre François Sildor, who visited Maniche at the time as director of EDH to help launch the project.

In December 2001, with much fanfare, Maniche was lit for the first time.

“It was a day of celebration,” Geordany says. “We danced and laughed when we saw the light in our homes for the first time.”

Maniche and Camp-Perrin residents have tried to restore electricity but to no avail. Geordany, coordinator of the Union des Jeunes de Maniche pour le Développement, Maniche’s youth union for development, questions authorities’ commitment to solve the problem. He claims that those in charge are yet to assess the electric wires and poles that have been down since the earthquake.

In the meantime, the youth union took action.

“My organization approached the CEO of Solo Energy and the mayor of Cavaillon, Ernst Ais, which led to the donation and installation of about 50 solar-powered street lamps in strategic locations in the center of the town,” Geordany says.

Jorice Oremil, coordinator of Aksyon pou sove lavi, a nonprofit association in Camp-Perrin, has not been idle either. Several demonstrations were organized for a single cause: the restoration of electricity to the region.

“We have held rallies, meetings with the community and EDH officials, but nothing has changed,” Oremil says.

Roger Diogène, of EDH, says a lack of responsibility on the part of senior officials is to blame.

During a visit to the power plant in 2023, an engineer in charge of the works at the time said it would cost 12 million gourdes (90,517 dollars) to carry out the repairs.

Oremil says that besides some masonry work, not much else has been going on at the plant. “A team from Port-au-Prince did the masonry work, so we are waiting for other technicians to put the equipment that moved during the earthquake back in place, but we don’t know when,” he says.

The country’s insecurity isn’t making things easier, which has prompted Oremil to change tack.

“The technicians can’t come to Camp-Perrin because of the roads blocked by armed gangs,” he says. “We have taken the decision to form a committee with members of the Camp-Perrin diaspora so that we can collect money to proceed with installation of the power station.”

Time, he says, is of the essence. “We are not sitting idly by. No place can develop without electricity.”

 

 

TRANSLATION NOTE

Megan Spada, GPJ, translated this article from French.

 

Posted May 18, 2024