A year ago today, at 16.53 local time, a catastrophic earthquake struck Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. In less than one minute the nation’s capital Port-au-Prince and other parts of the country were reduced to a matted mess of crumpled masonry.
News of the disaster spread quickly around the world. It was clear the death toll would be catastrophic. But few of us expected the number of deaths to rival that of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, which claimed 230,000 lives. How wrong we were.
60% of Port-au-Prince destroyed
A massive international relief effort was mounted. Aid agencies appealed for funds, aid workers and life-saving supplies circled then landed at Port-au-Prince’s congested airport. The response was hampered on the ground. The disaster effectively took out the government, wiping out the people who would ordinarily lead the emergency response. The UN lost its headquarters and many staff. Most of Save the Children staff suffered personal losses, including the death of their children, and many had nowhere to call home. In total, about 60 percent of the city was destroyed, making even the simplest movement difficult.
In the chaos and confusion aid workers worked heroically to get aid to the most vulnerable, housing people in tents, ensuring children and their families had access to clean water as well as food.
We focused our attention on ensuring that children, always the most vulnerable in a disaster, did not fall prey to exploitation and abuse, and instead were provided with a safe place to play and when possible, were reunited with their families.
But despite the immediate and timely response from the international community that helped to save many lives, today approximately one million people still live in cramped tent camps.
Make no mistake about it, these camps are the last place we would like to see children and their families – especially one year after the quake drove them from their homes.
Daunting clean-up task
But the sad truth is that Haiti faces a daunting clean-up task. According to the UN, only five per cent of the 20 million cubic metres of earthquake rubble has been removed. So, even at a rate of one thousand rubble-laden trucks per day it will take many years to clear all the debris.
Then there are the bodies. Even today bodies are exhumed from broken buildings. It’s a grim task that slows the pace of recovery.
There are other problems too. Before rebuilding starts, the Haitian government must deal with the issue of land ownership. Deciding who owns what land, and where, will be a huge challenge since most survivors fled quickly and documents like title deeds were destroyed.
So, with few housing options available, the awful truth is that for families to move their children out of the camps there has to be somewhere better to go. Meanwhile a number of people choose to live in the camps because, for the first time ever, they have access to basic services like water, health, sanitation and education.
And then there’s cholera – the emergency within the emergency, which recently sparked violence against UN peacekeepers accused, by some, of causing the outbreak.
Until October last year cholera, primarily spread by contaminated water, had not been reported in Haiti since the mid-20th century. Now it has spread across the entire nation, killing 3,651 people. Today the World Health Organisation warns the epidemic could affect at least 400,000 people.
Factor in non-existent or inefficient clean water supplies as well as sanitation systems and the risks of a cholera catastrophe are far from exaggerated. Easily treated with simple rehydration therapy, cholera makes the case for improved sanitation and improved hygiene practices in Haiti.
While the international aid community was stretched to help people affected by the earthquake, it also had to muster funding and resources to support the Haitian government in containing the disease as quickly as possible.
Presidential election has yet to deliver new leader
Adding to Haiti’s woes, violence flared last November following a Presidential election that has yet to deliver the country a new leader. ‘Stuck’ is the only way to describe the process. Our hope is that soon a newly elected, credible government will move forward with urgency to bring about dramatic change for quake-affected families.
Indeed in order to make lasting, positive change to the lives of children, the government of Haiti must lead, with strong support from all reconstruction and development stakeholders – donors, United Nations, NGOs and Haitian communities. Donors must commit to fully funding the humanitarian response — where currently health, shelter, food aid, protection of the population, education and agriculture needs are woefully underfunded.
So, today as we mark twelve months since the Haiti earthquake we should pause to acknowledge the immense challenge ahead of us; to recognise that we have helped save many lives and livelihoods; and to reaffirm our commitment to stand by the people of Haiti as we work together to make their country more resilient to natural hazards as well as a better place for children and their families to grow up.