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HAITI: Six Months On, Shelter Still a Main Priority

Matthew O. Berger

WASHINGTON, Jul 12 2010 (IPS) - Six months ago Monday, an earthquake rocked the western hemisphere’s poorest country, driving it deeper into poverty and burying it under its nascent infrastructure.

Children stand inside a camp in Croix des Bouquets, Haiti. Some 4,000 displaced Haitians have resettled at the site. Credit: UN Photo/Sophia Paris

Children stand inside a camp in Croix des Bouquets, Haiti. Some 4,000 displaced Haitians have resettled at the site. Credit: UN Photo/Sophia Paris

The 7.0 quake killed 230,000 people and its after-effects – hunger, contaminated water, escalating prices, lack of shelter and sanitation – are still devastating those who survived. Meanwhile, the worst hurricane season in years is gearing up.

In Washington, the anniversary was used to call attention to the work that has been done and that which remains to be completed.

“We have gotten past the immediate crisis and we are beginning to look towards the long term. And we are in that challenging space between transitioning from the immediate crisis to the long term. That is always challenging in these types of circumstances,” said Cheryl Mills, counsellor and chief of staff of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Mills pointed to the ongoing problem of moving people to more permanent shelters. Though the international community has pledged enough shelters to house 600,000 people, the problem is finding the land to build them on.

She told reporters at the U.S. State Department Monday that the international community is committed to getting people from the tents they are in now to transitional shelters “where they can exist comfortably for three to five years before moving into long-term housing”. These shelter issues, she said, will be “one of the bigger challenges over the next several months”.

During those months, however, hurricanes could threaten much of the recovery progress that has already been made. The U.S.’s Climate Predication Centre said last Thursday that La Niña conditions appear to be developing, which would mean ideal conditions for hurricanes to develop in the Atlantic and Caribbean and the potential for serious impacts on island countries like Haiti.

The season had already been predicted to be “active to extremely active” by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration back in May.

Haiti was devastated by four hurricanes in 2008. If and when a hurricane hits both the high winds and the rain washing down the country’s deforested hills would pose serious threats to the population.

Those hurricanes helped bring a flood of aid and recovery money to Haiti in 2008 and 2009.

And in March of this year, foreign governments meeting at U.N. headquarters pledged 5.3 billion dollars to the Haitian government for earthquake relief. But it is reported that only 10 percent of that amount has made it to the country so far.

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton and Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive, co-chairs of the Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission, acknowledge this fact and hope the rest of the money comes soon.

“Without reliable schedules for disbursement, the commission is unable to plan, finance projects or respond quickly to immediate needs,” they wrote in a New York Times op-ed on Friday.

They say Haiti is lucky to have not already been hit with another natural disaster and that the process for releasing the pledged money should be streamlined.

But they recognise some progress has been made.

“Has the reconstruction process been as quick and as far- reaching as many of us had hoped? No, not when so many Haitians remain homeless, hungry and unemployed. Has progress been made? Unequivocally, yes. But we must – all of us involved in Haiti’s recovery – do better,” they say.

Mills finds a bright spot in the fact that there has not been any significant outbreak of disease, but she noted that much work remains to be done to ensure the health of the population – not just due to the earthquake but due to the poor health conditions that already existed when the disaster struck.

“The health metrics are actually better in Haiti than they were before the earthquake. That is not necessarily a statement of how great things are, but a statement of some of the challenges [that] places [like] Haiti began [with]¬,” she said.

The World Health Organisation has said that 90 percent of people in Port-au-Prince affected by the earthquake now have access to health services, compared to 56 percent of Haitians before the disaster, and UNICEF says it has immunised over 275,000 children against potentially deadly diseases

Rajiv Shah, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, also spoke of the goal of helping “Haiti build back better”. As one example, he cited efforts with the Haitian government to train local workers in improving construction techniques so that rebuilt walls are two to three times stronger than they were before the quake.

But for all the advances, clear problems still remain. Rubble and debris, not to mention garbage and sewage, still litter the streets, according to reports.

“We know that we’re facing real, important challenges; the issues of how you remove 25 million cubic meters of debris, which is probably more than 20 times that existed in other tragedies such as the World Trade Center, in an environment that is congested and where infrastructure was challenging to begin with, is a tremendous challenge,” said Shah.

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