18 February 2010

One of the most pressing problems here is shelter. I already told you that many people live in tents outside their houses, or in small camp areas in their neighbourhood, because the houses have been destroyed, or are badly damaged. Often they are too afraid to go back inside, even if the house looks relatively OK (what does that mean, “relatively OK”, when you live in an earthquake-prone area?). This has led to the establishment of many camps in the city, some very large, and relatively well managed, but many small, ad-hoc, makeshift shelters without any structure. The large camps have been provided with tents, and there is a regular supply of water, which is tankered in and used to fill rubber bladders or newly constructed storage tanks. Latrines are being built, washing space is being created, and with a bit of luck rubbish is centrally collected – not necessarily taken away, but at least put somewhere outside.

The immediate problem is with the smaller camps, especially the ones in densely populated neighbourhoods with little space in between the houses, collapsed, damaged or otherwise. There is no space to put up proper tents or plastic sheeting that give people better protection against the rain. And constructing a latrine in such a place would only create a further health risk. Besides, many of these places are on slopes, and as soon as it starts raining seriously, the whole camp will just wash away. In the mean time drains, already poorly maintained in better times, are now partly blocked with rubble, and are filling up further with waste generated in the camps.

And rain it will! We have had the first showers at night, yet many people haven’t received the standard shelter pack – plastic sheeting, wooden poles, rope, and possibly jerrycans, a bucket and a hygiene kit. The rainy season is supposed to start end March, early April, but I think it is unlikely that all needs will have been addressed by then. Distributions are tricky, often require military protection to manage crowd control and to avoid a run on the goods, so need to be planned carefully, one reason for the often-mentioned delays. Having said this, there is also a sudden surge in availability of tarpaulins and all sizes of plastic sheets on the market…. and they look remarkably similar to the ones that are being distributed to the people in the camps. I suppose the market system is slowly restoring itself – which is a good thing, let there be no misunderstanding, people who receive something can either use it, or sell it and do something else with the money they get for it: it is, and it should be, their choice.

The longer term solution needs to come from the government, who must either allocate government-owned land to build temporary camps – this means camps that can house people for 6-18 months, at least -, or provide a legal framework for renting land for camps from private individuals. But of course, much of the government, whether infrastructure, systems or actual government officials at all levels, has been destroyed, and what has been left of government is acutely aware of the fact that this is an election year: elections, originally due this February, may have been postponed, but they will happen (later, perhaps, rather than sooner, in this case, but anyhow). Even if such land, and such camps, become available, it still needs to be seen whether people will relocate voluntarily, abandoning their belongings however deeply buried under the rubble, abandoning their neighbourhood, their source of income, their children’s school, for an uncertain future in a camp. After all, if you are emotionally attached to a place it is a lot more difficult to see the logic of relocation than if you work for the government, the UN or for an NGO.

So, plenty of challenges ahead. The rainy season is only the beginning, after that comes the hurricane season. Tents actually don’t work very well in such conditions, plastic sheeting is much better – but many people keep on pushing tents. There is not enough time, even if camp sites are swiftly identified and people are encouraged to relocate, to build more durable shelters in time. And with the shortage of architects, engineers and skilled construction labour, and the destruction of the institutions that teach them, rebuilding Port-au-Prince is going to take a lot longer than 18 months, or 5 years, or even 10 years. Sadly, we may see a lot more misery – and a lot less visible to the world than a sudden earthquake – before things get better.

no photos this time, I will try to find some suitable pictures to add tomorrow, but I just haven’t got the time to get out and see for myself…

next: indeed, the photos of the shelters

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