Disaster Looming in Haiti as Rainy Season Approaches

Displaced Haitians living on the grounds of Port-au-Prince's Petionville Club, formerly a golf and tennis resort, unite in prayer as part of a three-day, citywide mourning for the thousands of lives lost in their country's violent earthquake one month ago, on 12 January. 12/Feb/2010. Port-au-Prince, Haiti. UN Photo/Sophia Paris

Six weeks after the earthquake, just how urgent is the need for emergency shelter in Haiti?  According to the latest UN figures, there are over 1.2 million people living in makeshift tent cities that have popped up in parks, public spaces, along the sides of the road, and even in a golf course by people made homeless by the earthquake.  According to the UN Office fo the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) only 22% of people living in these so-called “spontaneous settlements” have received basic tents or tarpaulins that can shield them from the elements.

So far, providing emergency shelter has been one of the more challenging aspects of the international humanitarian response to the Haiti earthquake.   For one, donations earmarked for the provision of emergency shelter have been low in comparison to other sectors of the humanitarian response.  For example, while the so-called “health cluster” reached 107% of its requested funding from the UN’s initial $577 million appeal, the shelter cluster only received 47% of its requested funding.

This is a matter of donor preference.  The UN sets what it thinks are the appropriate need levels based on its assessments on the ground, but it is up to donors (including governments, philanthropies, corporations and individuals) to decide where they want their money to go.  The provision of emergency shelter was somehow less attractive to donors in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake than other causes.. Fortunately, a special UN fund was used to fill the gap in the underfunded sectors. (Also, it should be noted that much of the money that did go toward emergency shelter early on, came from the Central Emergency Response Fund. Disclosure.) 

Another obstacle is the sheer logistical challenge. Gerhard Tauscher is coordinating the on-the-ground response from NGOs and international organizations that are helping to provide emergency shelter. In an email, he says that part of the problem is over-crowding in the spontaneous settlements.  “In many areas in town, where people live in tents, there isn´t simply the space to set up a tent,” he writes.  On top of that, Tauscher says shipping capacity into the island of Hispaniola is still limited because of small or damaged harbor facilities.

Still, Tauscher warns that with the rainy season starting soon, “a solution needs to be in place quickly.”  He says the most flexible, short term solution is to distribute emergency shelter tool kits and Tarpaulins.”  Shelter kits cost about $30 and tarpaulins $15. Each are large enough to cover a family of five.   “That’s the most flexible, most realistic option to help people to make it over the rainy season,” says Tauscher. “All longer term solutions…need more time to become real.”  

The pressure felt by aid workers on the ground on the ground is also being expressed by top UN officials. In an email to his staff on Friday, obtained by UN Dispatch, the UN’s top Humanitarian Official John Holmes cited the lack of emergency shelter the greatest risk facing Haiti:

Overall, the humanitarian situation in Haiti is undoubtedly improving day-by-day. However, the situation will remain extremely complex with huge challenges to overcome for the next weeks and months. There are still serious needs to be addressed in the areas of shelter, sanitation, camp management and rubble removal (known now as “debris management”). The biggest immediate risk is that the rainy season will set in before enough people have the minimum emergency shelter provision, which will not only pose potentially life threatening risks to many people but could also have adverse political effects.  [Emphasis mine]

On Thursday, OCHA released a $1.4 billion appeal for emergency relief and reconstruction, of which $118,523,653 is allocated for shelter.  In practice, this means that the UN has a set a goal of providing 100,000 families with emergency waterproof shelters like the tarpaulin and shelter kit between now and May 1st. The next step is to provide so-called “transitional shelters” that are more sturdy and would last a few years until permanant housing is constructed.    

That’s the plan at least.  But it is going to take money to make it happen. As of the launch of the appeal on Thursday, only 22% of that $118.5 million had been received by aid organizations that are procuring and distributing the emergency and transitional housing.  This number will grow as more pledges come in, but organizations on the ground need all the help they can get. 

How can we help?  The International Federation for the Red Cross/Crescent is coordinating emergency shelter efforts across Haiti along with a number of NGOs and international organizations. These include the International Organization for Migration, UN Habitat, Care International Save the Children, the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, and Action Against Hunger, among others. Individuals can take a look at any of those organizations. 

Alternatively, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs lists a couple of options for people wishing to donate to under-funded aspects of the Haiti relief effort.  The first is the Emergency Response Relief Fund for Haiti (EERF), which OCHA describes as “An easy way to give to the Flash Appeal…The ERRF is ideal for donors who prefer not to choose specific organizations in the appeal…The ERRF will distribute funds to fill funding gaps and ensure the most urgent actions have enough resources.”  A second is the Central Emergency Response Fund (again, disclosure) which OCHA describes as, “a global standby fund to help victims of disasters and conflicts worldwide. CERF rapidly committed an immediate allocation of $25 million for Haiti. This contribution has been key to ensuring CERF can continue its worldwide role while also supporting large-scale immediate relief in Haiti. OCHA manages CERF and has an agreement with the United Nations Foundation, a 501C3, to receive tax-deductible donations from US tax payers.”

Everyone is racing the clock ahead of the rainy season, which is set to beging in May.  If you want to help Haiti’s where it needs help the most, consider donating to any one of these funds or organizations. 

Image: Flickr  Displaced Haitians living on the grounds of Port-au-Prince’s Petionville Club, formerly a golf and tennis resort, unite in prayer as part of a three-day, citywide mourning for the thousands of lives lost in their country’s violent earthquake one month ago, on 12 January. 12/Feb/2010. Port-au-Prince, Haiti. UN Photo/Sophia Paris