Staying ahead of the rains in Haiti

by Rhodri C. Williams

The latest OCHA situation report on Haiti indicates that the challenges there continue to mount even as the situation there has well and truly slid from the headlines. As reported previously on this blog, humanitarian and early recovery actors are having to focus on a double displacement crisis affecting both the earthquake affected urban areas and large areas of the countryside where the displaced have found shelter with host families. In both cases, significant progress will have to be made before the impending summer rainy and hurricane season if further humanitarian crises are to be averted.

In the cities affected by the earthquake, and notably the capital Port au Prince, emergency humanitarian work remains to be done even as international actors scramble to institute more sustainable, transitional approaches. According to OCHA, as many as 13,000 people in the capital still may have received no aid whatsoever, and only fifty percent of those in need have received emergency shelter materials such as tents and tarpaulins. Direct food distribution is going into a second phase and rising rates of malaria are a harbinger of the rainy season to come. However, greater attention is also now being given to matters such as resuming schooling and providing psycho-social support for children – some 45% of Haiti’s population – as well as working with local partners to monitor the security and human rights situation in displacement sites.

Another crucial – and time sensitive – urban priority involves identifying, securing and preparing safe sites for transitional shelter. Here, the OCHA report’s description of efforts in both the capital and other affected towns indicates the extent to which consciousness of legal tenure as well as the physical appropriateness of sites has been incorporated into shelter planning:

Efforts to decongest overcrowded settlement sites in Port-au-Prince continue, with priority being given to sites that are particularly prone to floods and landslides during the rainy season. Relocating some 200,000 persons currently displaced in high-risk settlements would require approximately 600 hectares of land. The Government has so far identified five sites comprising a total of about 220 hectares in the following locations: Sibert, Villages Des Orangers, Carail Cesselesse, Villages Des Antilles and Tabarre Issa. These five sites identified by the Government for resettlement of displaced people have been assessed and are judged to be fit-for-purpose although some drainage work is required. Preparation of sites will commence in the next three days on 12 hectares of land that are public property; the remainder is still subject to negotiation for purchase with the landowners. Humanitarian actors are currently identifying organizations to support the Government in site planning and development, as well in the preparations for relocation. Meanwhile, the relocation site Santo 17 is almost complete in terms of site development and should be inaugurated shortly.

The situation in the countryside is also critical, with the closing window of time before the rainy season representing not only a threat (of further disasters) but also an opportunity (to get crops planted in time). Although some early flooding in the region is likely to result in localized crop failure, FAO has begun seed distribution in hopes that most farmers will be able to stay ahead of the rains. The presence of tens of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in rural host communities has created further pressure on agriculture as well as basic services:

Approximately 160,000 people are also estimated to have arrived to the border areas with the Dominican Republic from other areas affected by the earthquake. The majority of these displaced persons have not been accommodated in camps or settlements but by host families in communities. These communities, particularly in rural areas, where the displaced have arrived and found refuge have historically been very poor. With the arrival of large numbers of people from Port-au-Prince, the basic services there – schools, health centers, water supply – as well as the local economy – have been severely overstretched. UN missions visiting these areas inside Haiti, such as Fonds Verrettes in the South-East, or Ouanamithe in the North-East, have witnessed households that were composed of only 4 to 5 persons before the earthquake, are now housing 12 to 15 individuals.

Under normal circumstances, the fact that we are not hearing about Haiti anymore would allow the public to draw reassuring inferences – the crisis is over, reconstruction is underway. In this case, it may literally be the calm before the storm.

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