Gas Shortages in Haiti: A Long Ranging Problem

A few days ago, my colleague and I were scheduled to drive up to Hospital Albert Schweitzer to assess their medical supply needs and determine what more we could give them from our medical supply inventory. Unfortunately, we soon found out that we wouldn't be able to make the three hour drive to Deshapelles because our car was out of gas and our local staff member had been unable to purchase gasoline for pretty much the entire week before we arrived. When he was able to get fuel, it was only after waiting in line at the pumps from noon until 5:30 p.m. because he didn't want to risk purchasing it from the street vendors who often mix it with water. So unfortunately, we had to cancel the trip and turn it into a work-from-home day. We are now on constant alert for gas stations carrying fuel, so we don't get stuck again.

But a gas shortage in Haiti doesn't just mean fewer cars on the streets. It means that houses, hospitals, schools and businesses can't run their generators to keep their lights on or the equipment running. Now that many hospitals in Port-au-Prince are working out of tents using generator-powered equipment, a fuel shortage can have devastating consequences.

A gas shortage cripples businesses as well. The warehouse we rent as a storage and distribution site for medical supplies is actually in a factory where they process and bag clean drinking water and make huge blocks of ice so people can have cold drinks. A lot of people do not own ice makers, but even if they did, they would also need constant electricity for the units to function. So, this business distributes bags of water and blocks of ice get via truck to local vendors who sell them on the streets. And a gas shortage means that they cannot make clean drinking water.

The barrier for entry for businesses in Haiti is extremely high and this is a huge contributing factor to the high unemployment rate. Things we completely take for granted in the U.S. are not so in Haiti. To open a business, you not only have to provide your own security, but you also have to ensure that you have your own constant fuel supply (or, rather, a reliable source electricity, like solar.) The entrepreneur-owner of this water and ice factory spent eight years lining up all the necessary pieces, and when he finally did open, he had 10,000 people apply for 500 jobs.

People want to work; they just don't have the opportunity to. A fuel shortage affects every step in the commercial processes of manufacturing, distribution and sales. And a fuel shortage doesn't inspire much confidence for entrepreneurs here, who, like everywhere else, drive economic activity.