30 March 2010
Sir Nick Young, British Red Cross chief executive, visited Haiti last weekend. In this piece, which also appears in today’s Independent, he reflects on the preparations he saw there for the upcoming, potentially dangerous, rainy season:
Recent heavy rains have turned the spotlight back to Haiti. It's pouring again as I arrive, the water sluicing down on tents and makeshift shelters, running through the camp in a cold stream.
Along with the shock at the continuing human suffering, the images are also provoking another reaction; why, when so much money has been donated, are people still living in appalling conditions?
The Haitian rainy season is no secret, bringing torrential downpours from March onwards every year. Why, when the world knew the rains were coming, are people still forced to shelter under tarpaulins? Where are the new houses? Has the relief effort dissolved under the rains?
Haiti represents one of the fastest aid distribution operations ever undertaken. This week, shelter distributions led by the Red Cross will reach their millionth person. Tarpaulins, tents and plastic sheeting have been put into the hands and over the heads of around 100,000 people a week. This is despite well-publicised problems including a devastated port, blocked roads and a clogged airport.
We have always been clear providing solid transitional shelters with wooden walls and corrugated-iron roofs would have been impossible before the rains. That is why getting as many people as possible under waterproof cover by May 1st, when the worst rains are forecast, has been the focus.
I visited La Piste and Automeca camps, both amazingly clean and tidy, despite the grotesquely overcrowded conditions. We’ve built new latrines here despite the shortage of space and wood - one for every 209 people. The target is one for every 100.
The kids all call out; earlier, they were dancing with two clowns who were teaching them basic hygiene messages. But hygiene is a distant concept with so few toilets, so little clean water, for so many people.
The needs are vast and of course, we always want to go faster but simultaneously, we have to be realistic.
In New York, in the richest country in the world, teams of the most well equipped experts on earth took two years to clear the rubble of the World Trade Centre.
Relentless relief effort
We need to help people as quickly as possible, but must not let pressure to speed up our response lead to errors of judgement which could undermine recovery, and jeopardise people’s lives.
Rubble is being cleared, and new sites are being identified so those in most danger can be evacuated to safer places. Agencies have begun work on robust transitional shelters for the most vulnerable, but it is inevitable thousands will be living in temporary shelters in camps when the worst rain hits.
Agencies are working relentlessly but it is a sad reality that, with the rains coming, the situation for people living in the camps will get worse before it gets better.
Read Nick's blogs from his trip to Haiti