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Haiti’s balky electric grid impediment to recovery

People watch TV at a camp set up for homeless earthquake survivors in downtown Port-au-Prince on Wednesday.  (Associated Press)
People watch TV at a camp set up for homeless earthquake survivors in downtown Port-au-Prince on Wednesday. (Associated Press)

Even in better times, utility had difficulty collecting from impoverished users

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Six weeks after a catastrophic earthquake flattened downtown Port-au-Prince, power has returned to nearly half the city’s neighborhoods.

Most, however, are in the hilly southern suburbs, which look down at night on the miles of near blackness where most of the quake-rendered homeless abide in teeming tent cities.

Even before the Jan. 12 quake, electrical service in Haiti meant an average of 10 hours of power a day delivered by a rickety grid to just a quarter of the population – not even half of them paying customers.

If Haiti now hopes to shake off its status as the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation, experts say, it will need to build a power system far better than the highly subsidized, cash-hemorrhaging utility it had before the disaster.

It is starting almost from scratch.

The state-owned Electricite d’Haiti, like the government, is essentially broke. Fewer customers than ever are able or willing to pay. Their jobs disappeared along with their homes in 30 violent seconds.

Haiti immediately needs $40 million to get its grid back to pre-quake status and pay its 2,500 workers, hundreds of whom are living in tents, the utility’s director-general, Serge Raphael, said in an interview with the Associated Press.

The company said it needs to figure out how to finance itself – the payroll alone is $15 million a month – as well as provide power to the millions of Haitians who can’t afford it.

“This is one of the most pressing problems that Haiti is facing,” said Ernest Paultre, the U.S. Agency for International Development’s chief engineer for Haiti.

The challenge is as glaring as the bare yellow bulb of a makeshift street lamp, hooded by a scrap of tin, that lights up a dirt path in the Debrose 33 neighborhood on the side of a ravine.

Joseph Dessier, 47, now lives with his wife and five children in a shack cobbled together of tin, paperboard and a tarps in the yard of a former auto repair shop alongside neighbors who also lost their homes.

The camp’s residents power lamps, TVs, cell phone chargers and blow driers off a single line that somebody strung up from the ravine.

Nobody is paying for the electricity. Then again, hardly anyone in Debrose 33 was paying before the quake.

“You could count on your fingers the number of people who had meters and were able to pay for electricity,” said Dessier.

Utility chief Raphael said his biggest problem has always been the utility’s inability to collect from its users.

“In the slums, how can you make people pay for power?” he said. The utility has only been able to collect on between 10 to 15 percent of December’s bills, he said, and it only expects about one in three ratepayers to pay up through the end of April.

When the quake struck, the company was installing a computerized system to improve bill collection and management that was bankrolled by a $14 million grant from the Inter-American Development Bank.

Another $18 million grant is in the pipeline for this year, but rehabilitation money isn’t anywhere near enough to begin shoring up the utility, says Lumas Kendrick Jr., IADB energy specialist in Haiti.

“The global community has to step up,” added Kendrick, noting that the utility has been running a deficit of about $80 million a year out of a $200 million budget.

“The real issue is how we get more funding,” he said Wednesday.

Rebuilding Haiti’s power grid and expanding its generation capacity are among priorities – along with roads, water and sanitation – for an international donors conference set for late March at U.N. headquarters.

Until then, without additional emergency funds, little can be done to further restore service on a hobbled distribution network.

“It’s going to take six months to a year to get the materials in here to build up the areas that don’t have power now,” said Myk Manon, an engineer with the U.S. National Rural Electric Cooperative Association who has been managing international efforts to restore electrical power. “In the meantime, a lot of people are going to be in the dark.”

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