3 April 2010
There are 1.16 mln people living in the spontaneous camps that sprung up around Port-au-Prince after the earthquake, according to the latest registration figures from the UN agencies in Haiti. Just think of that for a moment, 1.16 mln on a total population of perhaps 8-9 mln, that is almost 15%!! One in 7 Haitians are currently living under some plastic sheets, and that is if they were lucky enough to have received this from any of the aid agencies, otherwise their shelter is likely to be not much more than a piece of cloth, a blanket, or anything else makeshift that is unlikely to be waterproof.
Of those 1.16 mln, up to 200,000 are living in so-called high risk sites – camps at risk from flooding and mudslides when the rainy season starts. Out of this figure, 37.000 have been identified as most at risk (don’t ask me what the exact definition is), these are people that potentially will have to be evacuated. In order to make the high risk camps safer, through essential clearing of drains and other relatively simple engineering works, 9000 people must be moved in the next week, to provide access to the work areas; if they don’t, the work cannot be carried out, and all 37,000 will have to move, so, from a utilitarian perspective, we better get on with the job of the 9000.
However, for the individuals that have to move things look a little different. If they can return to their houses, or to a host family nearby, this move is not so bad, but if they cannot, the only option left is to move to a new site, which is currently being prepared near Cabaret, a village some 40 km north of Port-au-Prince. There is nothing in Cabaret: camp services, especially in the beginning, will be absolutely minimal, livelihood opportunities non-existent, and forget about transport back to the city. These people are going to have a miserable life, for the foreseeable future, and I cannot imagine them looking forward to this adventure, never mind that they are being bribed with the prospect of more food distributions, a cash hand-out and an extra tarpaulin. Yet, what can we, as humanitarian community, do? There is no land allocated closer to Port-au-Prince, there are no other camps where space is available, and there is no time to develop a better service package at the site in Cabaret ahead of the relocation. It is a really difficult question, but whatever happens, the government is going ahead with the relocation, trucks and buses will transport all those that have no other option to Cabaret, starting next Monday.
Of course Cabaret is, coincidentally, also one of the four places identified as Poles de Croissance, growth poles, in the Haitian government’s rebuilding strategy. These Poles are to become attractive cities in their own right, designed to decongest Port-au-Prince. Right! Seeing is believing. An interesting detail – also coincidence?- is that Cabaret was also, in the 1960s, destined to become Duvalierville, a project by the late Francois Duvalier, better known as Papa Doc, to create a model city. The project failed. Would a weak government in the aftermath of an earthquake achieve what a cruel dictator couldn’t?
There is always a chance, with the help of the international community. In fact, the relocation package offered could be so attractive that more people will want to move than the 9000 currently targeted; totally unexpectedly, squatters have already put up their tents on the new site, just days after the location had been officially announced, in anticipation of new hand-outs. Perhaps this has nothing to do with the aftermath of a disaster, but is just the expression of abject poverty?
next: the trip