Dye mon, gen mon – Land and shelter issues remain critical in post-quake Haiti

by Rhodri C. Williams

After blogging quite a lot on Haiti up till the New York donors’ conference back in March, my attention wandered a bit to other issues and regions. However, its been impossible to avoid noticing a steady drumbeat of reports over the last weeks indicating that a number of key pillars of the shelter and durable solutions strategies endorsed in New York seem to be faltering just as the new rainy season closes in on the beleaguered country.

Rebuilding after a disaster of the magnitude of Haiti’s quake will inevitably be a fraught process, subject to setbacks and delays. Even in relatively better off and better prepared Chile, IFRC reports that shelter and health issues remain a serious concern for those affected by the February quake there. But what is painful about the current impasse in Haiti is how quickly the cautious optimism generated in the run-up to the donor conference seems to be bogging down in a slurry of indecisiveness. Reading about it, I keep recalling a rather sad little Haitian proverb a colleague kept quoting in my grad school days of yore – back in the 90s when pre-quake Haiti was already seen as a basket case. “Dye mon, gen mon” went the title of her thesis: beyond the mountains, more mountains.

I began refocusing on Haiti after coming across an IHT editorial in mid-May that noted that the 1.5 million Haitians displaced by the quake remain, by and large, displaced. According to the editorial, only 7,500 people had been moved out of dangerous and overcrowded tent cities in the capital to planned transitional shelter areas due to the failure of the government to acquire appropriate sites, as well as the destruction of property records and growing neighborhood resistance to letting indigent newcomers put down roots. Meanwhile, the failure of humanitarian agencies to shift their operations beyond the capital was undermining the great decentralization plan, as urban IDPs began trickling back from the rural areas where they had found shelter in order to access aid.

Five days later, on May 19, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes confirmed in an interview with AlertNet that shelter was now the main humanitarian issue in Haiti and conceded a degree of frustration over the slow progress in moving forward on transitional shelter sites:

“There wasn’t a proper land registry system (before the earthquake) and this complicates the issue of the government taking land and allocating it for resettlement,” [Holmes] told AlertNet in an interview this week, adding that legal documents relating to land title were destroyed in the disaster.

Another factor was the scarcity of suitable land for resettlement in Port-au-Prince and the government’s hesitation to build large numbers of “transitional shelters”, made of wooden frames and galvanised iron roofs and designed to last a couple of years.

“They say ‘well these will probably turn into permanent settlements – is that actually what we want?'” Holmes said.

“I think there’s not a shortage of materials or of capacity to build these shelters, it’s a question of (the government) saying right this is where we’re going to build, this is how many people we’re going to put there, now let’s do it.”

He added that the delay was “a bit frustrating”.

Holmes also noted that many Haitians refused to move back to structurally sound homes, either for fear of aftershocks or in order to remain eligible for aid available in camps, and expressed concern about the return of IDPs from rural areas:

“Of course there were no jobs [in the countryside] so some of them have started to come back and are swelling the numbers in the camps to some extent,” Holmes said. “People have the impression – probably a false impression – that there are lots of aid goodies that will come their way if they are in camps.”

On May 21, an AlertNet interview with the head of Haiti’s leading AIDS treatment center linked conditions in the camp directly with increasing risks of typhoid and tuberculosis transmission. By May 29, the New York Times reported on frustration with both the Preval government and the “okipasyon” of foreign aid agencies alike:

The simple phrase “Aba Préval” (Down with Préval…) has become shorthand for a long list of frustrations, and an epithet expressing a broader fear — that Haitians will be stuck in limbo indefinitely, and that the opportunity to reinvent Haiti is being lost.

While few have given up entirely on the dream that a more efficient, more just Haiti might rise from the rubble, increasingly, hope is giving way to stalemate and bitterness. “Is this really it?” Haitians ask. They complain that the politically connected are benefiting most from reconstruction work that has barely begun. They shake their heads at crime’s coming back, unproductive politicians and aid groups that are struggling with tarpaulin metropolises that look more permanent every day.

And finally, on June 1, OCHA marked the formal beginning of the 2010 hurricane season by announcing that it was preparing for the worst case scenario in Haiti. The press release served as a reminder that the January quake was only the most recent and severe in a series of natural disasters that had left people throughout the country vulnerable:

While contingency plans are well under way, including dedicated 24-hour humanitarian rapid response teams in case of rain or hurricane related incidents in spontaneous sites, the danger posed by hurricanes to the already vulnerable populations left homeless by the quake is considerable.

The rest of the country, where poverty is extreme and infrastructure poor, also remains acutely vulnerable, especially those areas still recovering from Hurricanes Fay, Gustav, Hanna and Ike, which between them killed over 800 people in 2008 and devastated large parts of Haiti.

In warning of the possibility of a renewed humanitarian crisis in Haiti, OCHA touched on the ongoing difficulties caused by the awkward relationship between an international presence without the legitimacy to lead and an elected government without the capacity to lead:

Further contingency planning, however, would be greatly assisted by the release of the Country Wide Contingency Plan, drafted by the Department of Civil Protection in collaboration with partners. While the plan has been updated following the earthquake, finalization by the Ministry of the Interior has not been completed.

“While it is encouraging that the government has led this process, it is vital that this plan is put into practice as quickly as possible,” said [Haiti OCHA head Sarah] Muscroft. “The international community is standing by to assist in this process in any way we can.”

As all the actors in Haiti consider the next range of mountains and those beyond, it is easy to see the recent optimism at the March donor conference as a little naive and hard not to wish it had lasted a bit longer.

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