CANAPÉ VERTE, Haiti -- Robert Naylor walks the perimeter of an electricity substation high above the earthquake-battered capital of Port-au-Prince, pointing out new batteries, switches and transformers that his construction company, Perini Management Corp., installed here as part of a $12.7 million U.S. Agency for International Development project to strengthen Haiti's energy infrastructure.
This substation and others were damaged in the 2010 quake, and the United States is investing in repairs to the transmission and distribution systems as well as the installation of new equipment and worker training. But below the substation's chain-link fence, a jumble of cut and spliced wires snake from the overhead power line toward a cluster of makeshift shacks. Naylor points to the creative electricity connection undermining his company's hard work and shakes his head.
A few winding streets below, 26-year-old Forestal Chamblin walks past the patchwork of corrugated metal and fraying tarp structures at the "ENAF2" camp city, which he and about 300 families who were displaced in the 2010 earthquake still call home.
"Yes, we take. We take it secretly," Chamblin says, shrugging, as he glances up at dangling wires. Tall and wiry himself in jeans and a white T-shirt, Chamblin leans against one of three 1,000-gallon water tanks that were filled regularly in the months after the earthquake but that, residents say, have been empty now for a year. Getting a legal electricity connection is out of the question for residents of ENAF2, he says. "There are no jobs for us, so we cannot pay."
More than three years after Haiti suffered the worst natural disaster in its history, its recovery has been excruciatingly slow. Still, people here say, there is more progress than first meets the eye: new roads, schools and even a state-of-the-art teaching hospital about a half-hour away from Port-au-Prince.
In energy, there are a few signs of light as well: a new USAID-funded industrial park on the country's north coast aimed at electrifying 1,800 households, as well as steady improvements to substations like the one at Canapé Verte; solar-powered street lights in the capital; and the presidential appointment of a widely acclaimed Cornell University-educated electrical engineer as the country's new minister delegate for energy security.
Slower going, experts say, is breaking the vicious cycle of antiquated transmission networks, theft, corruption and poor maintenance crippling Haiti's power sector.
A snarl of good and bad intentions
Exhibit A: circuit breakers. Speaking inside a mobile trailer atop the substation, Naylor says one of the things he found when he started the project was a jumble of unmatching equipment from various governments that had provided aid in the past. With nearly no regulation from the Haitian government, he notes, there was little to stop each donor nation from insisting that its own companies provide parts. The result was outdated and almost unfixable switch gears and circuit breakers from Canada, France and several other countries.
"Unfortunately, when you take donated items, you take what you can get. But when one thing breaks and there's no specs and there never has been any ... well, now these poor people need 10 circuit breakers because every one is different. So instead of things being solved, they just put a Band-Aid on it," he says.
His job, Naylor says, includes a redesign that has redundancy built into the system -- basically, duplicated spare parts -- so that Haitian workers can maintain and repair it. The costs are comparable, he says, and the system is sustainable long-term.
But then there's the theft. "Most people don't have a job and can't pay for power, so a lot of power in Haiti is stolen," he explains.