13 June 2010

Somebody asked me the other day – not just somebody, it was the chair woman of the SHO, the collective that represents the Dutch emergency response agencies – why the humanitarian community had not collaborated all together to clear the rubble. Let’s all of us mobilise heavy equipment, and put our resources towards clearing, and in no time the city of Port-au-Prince will be spring-cleaned. After all, the presence of rubble hampers the recovery and rehabilitation efforts. Like, we cannot build schools, and houses, because the urban plots on which we need to build are still covered with rubble. The roads are clogged, because many people clearing their plot dump the rubble on the road. And, perhaps less obvious, continuing to have rubble all over the place will do little to relief the trauma that many still carry.

Well, firstly because the humanitarian community has organised itself in a cluster system, where everybody is represented and is asked to contribute to what they are best at. NGOs sign up with the cluster, or clusters, that best cover their activities. Save the Children is represented in the education cluster, the health cluster, the nutrition cluster and many others, with like-minded, or rather, similarly-focussed NGOs and UN agencies, to ensure there are no overlaps in what we do to provide relief, and there are no gaps. This works relatively well, certainly better than before, when this system was not in existence. There is also an early recovery cluster, and I imagine a rubble clearing workgroup is part of that. And that is where this effort should be concentrated – let’s not all of us go and do te same thing. In any case, I would imagine that the people who gave money to Save the Children would expect that money to go, slightly more directly, to children’s issues – like those who gave to Oxfam want it to go to what Oxfam stands for, etc.

Secondly, it is difficult, perhaps, to appreciate the enormous task ahead of us. One of those specialist agencies, UNDP, has estimated that it will take 1000 trucks per day, for three years, to clear all the rubble in Port-au-Prince. A nice round figure, but it gives you an idea what we are facing. We now do only 150 trucks a day. Only! I think that is still quite a lot, and is largely limited by the fact that there are not enough places available to dump the stuff. There are currently some eight sites approved, but there is a need for 15-20 more, in convenient locations; you don’t want to drive all the way to the other side of town with a truck full of rubble.

Of course is doesn’t help that, totally unprovoked, some unnecesarily add to the rubble: the mayor of Petionville, at the edge of Port-au-Prince, decided to clear the cemetery, the famous cemetery at the end of Route Delmas (for those who know the area) even though it was hardly affected by the tremor, in order to build a new bus station. Quite apart from sensitivities about dead bodies, so shortly after the earthquake, I am not sure whether this was really the highest priority, and as I said, it just adds to the rubble.

However, the most important reason to go slow, or slower than perhaps possible if we all go flat out, is that people need to clear their own rubble, step by step. Their possessions are under it, they want to salvage whatever possible. At one stage there was even the debate about the value of rubble, people didn’t want to part with “their” rubble without being paid for it. Really! By now, it has been established, and mostly accepted, that the value is in fact limited. But in quite a few places, we expect that there are still a few bodies under the rubble, another reason to go slow – even though the recovery and rehabilitation efforts may suffer. Even though traffic in Port-au-Prince will be badly affected for quite some time to come, with people adding more and more rubble to the streets everyday. Even though people will be reminded of the earthquake, day after day – as if they ever would forget.

next: the worldcup

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