A Light In The Dark: Solar Streetlights And Security In Haitian Camps

By Matthew Van Dusen, Txchnologist

Streetlights do more than tell us when to be home — “Be back before they come on,” our parents would tell us – they also light the way and keep us safe. Nowhere is this more evident than in the sprawling camps of people displaced by the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti. In recent months, the lights have come on at two camps through the efforts of aid groups, the Haitian government and the particular expertise of the Solar Electric Light Fund, or SELF, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that uses renewable energy to provide light and power in developing countries.

image via SELF

Before the advent of the lights, social life in the camps would fade every day with the setting sun and leave people isolated in their makeshift accommodations, according to Jean-Baptiste Certain, who managed the lighting project for SELF. “They were living on top of each other in those tents,” Certain said by telephone from Port-Au-Prince. Children couldn’t study and women wouldn’t use the public latrines at night because they feared assault. It was a justified fear: an Amnesty International report issued last January found that women in camps were at significant risk of sexual assault, at least in the months immediately after the earthquake.

Nightlife has taken off since the installation of the lights at the Pétionville and Caradeux camps as residents’ sense of security has improved.

Nascent nightlife at the Pétionville Camp. Courtesy SELF

“Small businesses by the market area stay open until later in the evening, providing a source of income to families in camp and the area is busy with people socializing and playing board games,” said Chiara Lucchini Gilera, the Camp and Relocations Program Manager for J/P HRO, the relief organization founded by actor Sean Penn that runs the Pétionville Camp.

Most importantly, reports of violence at Pétionville declined to almost zero after the streetlights were installed. “We believe that the lights are responsible for that,” Certain said.

Dim camps, harsh conditions

The nexus between public lighting and safety is hotly debated in Western countries.

Some studies show a decline in crime after an area is illuminated while other research has found that crime actually increases after lights are installed, though it may be because crime is more visible. These studies are of little value, however, in places with collapsed infrastructure like Haiti, which plunged into darkness after the magnitude 7.0 earthquake flattened entire neighborhoods and killed untold thousands.

Survivors flocked in the tens of thousands to camps like the one in Caradeux, where they built shacks with plywood walls and tin roofs, and Pétionville, a tent city built on a private golf course that was crammed with 50,000 people at its peak. The only illumination at night in Pétionville came from 30 solar lamps installed by another group, which SELF officials described as ineffective, and three light towers powered by generators.

Children at the Pétionville Camp. Courtesy SELF

Security conditions in the camps suffered despite patrols of U.N. Peacekeepers and internal security forces. At Pétionville, there were numerous entrance and exit points and people lived cheek to jowl in harsh conditions, creating the potential for conflict, according to the camp’s managers. Women were at particular risk. The Amnesty International report indicated that there were 250 reported cases of rape in several camps (the exact camps were not identified) in the 150 days following the earthquake. Women interviewed for the report indicated that lack of lighting at night played a role in the violence. “In our camp we cannot live peacefully; at night we cannot go out,” one woman told Amnesty International.

“In a post-earthquake environment, where you’ve got millions of people crammed into these pretty densely packed camps, things can get out of control quickly,” said Robert Freling, SELF’s executive director. “Anybody who had been to the camps and could see what was happening realized that lights could have an impact and improve security for the women.”

SELF, which had been electrifying rural medical clinics in Haiti before the quake, got involved in January after being tapped by the Inter-American Development Bank, which finances development in the Caribbean and paid the approximately $300,000 for the lighting project. (Another larger grant from the bank will be used for a rural electrification project administered by SELF). (continued via page 2 link below)

Editor’s Note: This feature comes to us as a cross post courtesy of Txchnologist. Author credit for the feature goes to Matthew Van Dusen.

I am the editor-in-chief and founder for EarthTechling. This site is my desire to bring the world of green technology to consumers in a timely and informative matter. Prior to this my previous ventures have included a strong freelance writing career and time spent at Silicon Valley start ups.