Haiti stuck in Groundhog Day

This photo, taken from the second floor of a building in the bishop's compound, shows the extent of the mud damage. Credits: David Snyder/CRS

This photo, taken from the second floor of a building in the bishop’s compound, shows the extent of the mud damage.
Credits: David Snyder/CRS

When was Haiti last in the news? You’ll probably have to wrack your brains before remembering that it last made the headlines in September 2008 when a series of tropical storms caused massive flooding and mudslides.

Five months later, NGOs are wrapping up their emergency programmes and pulling out. No news on Haiti and the NGOs are going, so everything must be fine. Not quite.

“People still aren’t in safe housing,” says William Canny, Country Representative for Caritas member Catholic Relief Services (CRS). “Buildings are still covered in mud. And what’s more, some of the issues that led to the mudslides haven’t been dealt with.”

Haiti is considered the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. With its few resources it has to combat problems such as massive social inequalities, episodes of social unrest, hunger, lack of development and environmental degradation.

On top of this, it lies in the Caribbean’s hurricane path and every year risks floods and the ensuing problems of homelessness, hunger and damaged infrastructure.

Caritas launched a US$4.3 million appeal to help Haitians in the aftermath of last year’s storms. Over 800,000 people were affected by the disaster and 800 died.

Mr Canny says helping people repair their homes, replant crops and rebuild their livelihoods is essential following a disaster.

“If you don’t get into rehabilitation quickly, before you know it another hurricane season arrives and people are back were they started,” he says.

He explains that poor countries just don’t have the same capacity to recover as quickly as a developed country. People often work in agriculture and once they lose their animals and crops they then have no money to invest in their livelihoods and overcome their losses.

Caritas helped Haitians in the short term with food, water and medicine distributions. It is also helping to remove the tonnes of mud that descended on towns and villages, plus it helped people prepare in the event of disaster and alerted people about the storms in remote areas.

“I think we saw the results of our disaster preparedness programme this year with fewer deaths and I think people were better prepared to get to higher ground,” says Mr Canny.

Deforestation is one reason the storms brought mudslides that caused massive damage, as there weren’t enough plants and trees at the top of mountains to prevent rain from gushing down into the valleys.

Caritas wants to develop watershed programmes to improve soil conservation and deal more effectively with the deforestation at the top of mountainous areas.

Food supply is another challenge following the storms. Haiti was one of the countries hit by food price riots last year and is still vulnerable now after the storms washed away crops and livestock, despite price decreases. Caritas works closely with the government office which tracks food prices, crop production and has been helping people with agricultural activities.

Mr Canny says that 55 percent of Haiti’s food needs are met through imports and the government and NGOs need to incrementally address the imbalance.

Now the immediate emergency is over, Caritas is looking for funding to help Haitians’ lives return to normal and also help them prevent such dire consequences from future disasters; but it isn’t easy.

“We often get adequate money for the emergency phase and we never do well in the rehabilitation phase,” says Mr Canny. “Everyone moves on to the next emergency or international problem.”

Looking at the international news this week it’s dominated by the war in Gaza, the ongoing economic crisis and the election of Barack Obama.

With so many stories vying for attention, who’s going to remember that five months ago many Haitians died and lost their homes, their crops and their hopes of a stable future? And who’s going to think that the very same thing may happen again this year if they don’t get our help?


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