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Haiti’s Tent Camps Likely to Remain for Years

Beatrice Paez

UNITED NATIONS, Jul 13 2010 (IPS) - Six months after Haiti’s devastating earthquake, U.N. aid agencies say they are entering the challenging phase of replacing the tents that are home to the estimated 1.5 million people who remain displaced.

Nigel Fisher, the deputy representative of the secretary- general in Haiti, told the press at a briefing Monday that by August 2011, about 120,000 temporary, transitional shelters will be ready. Experts have also been testing new ways to repair homes that have not been structurally destroyed.

“They will be in tented camps for months and maybe years to come,” Fisher told reporters. “This is the biggest urban disaster that the world has seen in living memory.”

The 7.0 magnitude earthquake killed 230,000 people and affected another 2.3 million. According to Fisher, only about 100,000 people have returned to their neighbourhoods so far.

Critics charge the progress has been slow, but Fisher disputed this, citing issues of land claims and tenure that need to be ironed out before settlements can be inhabited across the affected areas.

He added that after the 1995 Kobe earthquake in Japan, which claimed 6,000 lives, it took a nation with abundant resources seven years to make a full recovery.

The bigger picture is less bleak, he said. Safe water has been delivered to 1.2 million people, millions are being fed daily and the temporary schools are on their way to restoring some sense of a normal routine to the lives of children.

Outside the capital, farming families have also been provided with seeds, roots and tubers and tools for agriculture. “Crops are starting to grow again,” said Fisher.

Over-urbanisation and the rise of informal settlements place cities like Port-au-Prince, which are already prone to natural disasters, at even higher risk, said Margareta Wahlström, the special representative for the U.N. secretary-general for disaster risk reduction.

Since May, mayors from 58 cities, including Port-au-Prince, have taken the lead in joining the “Making Cities Resilient” campaign.

A pledge that engages local governments and its citizens to build safer cities able to withstand and recover from natural disasters, the campaign puts forth a 10-point checklist of essentials for local governments and citizens to take action on.

Among the items on the agenda are targeted efforts at improving urban planning, creating early warning systems, conducting public preparedness drills and investing in risk- reducing infrastructure. By the end of 2015, the campaign hopes to hit a record of 1,000 cities.

Makati, Philippines, a city at high risk for floods, typhoons and earthquakes, will conduct an assessment of the infrastructure of its schools. As the campaign’s most recent signatory, Makati has pledged to use five percent of its annual budget for initiatives such as disaster preparedness, risk reduction, and post recovery.

Each signatory is also obliged to share their experience and export their expertise to stir action in cities that are not yet members.

Wahlström explained to IPS that a lack of political will and impatience toward the delivery of results were reasons for the absence of more cities on the list. “Often people say there is no reward in risk reduction…there’s always pressure for immediate results,” she said.

Studies have also advanced the idea of a link between disasters and the spurring of innovation and growth, citing the experience of the Sichuan Province in China, which was rocked by a major earthquake in 2008. Wahlström noted that China is hardly typical, however, since its provinces were able to mobilise the resources required for a quick response.

But for a country as a fragile and poor as Haiti was even before the earthquake, Wahlström expressed doubt that the disaster would ultimately stimulate an economic boom. The damages are estimated at a minimum of 7.8 billion dollars, more than equivalent to the country’s GDP in 2009.

“What hopefully will lead to an economic growth are efforts that were initiated before the earthquake, combined with hopefully now, new resources. The long-term negative impacts in terms of loss of school for young people are often very serious,” she said.

For a nation with a large, young population, ensuring that safe schools are built in place of the 4,992 schools that were either damaged or destroyed is a high priority for the campaign.

Asking locals what would motivate them to return home, Fisher said they have consistently emphasised the need for income opportunities and schools for their children.

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