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Haiti: Two Years on

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Haiti in January 2010, 10 days after the earthquake, was a country in shock. For days and weeks afterwards large parts of the population devoted themselves to sifting through the rubble. It was a dangerous job as concrete houses were still collapsing weeks after the initial quake, triggered either by aftershocks that continued for months, or by people moving rubble to try and find their loved ones, usually dead.

As was heavily reported at the time, the damage to the airport, the seaport and roads in Port-au-Prince meant that bringing aid in during the initial phases proved a challenge. Additionally, an urban disaster - increasingly common globally - often causes much more damage to buildings, infrastructure and human lives, than if the same hazard strikes a rural area. This earthquake was no exception and in Léogâne, near the epicentre, 80% of the buildings collapsed.

These challenges were compounded over the year by several other crises, including a massive storm, political unrest following disputed election results and an outbreak of cholera which required its own, almost parallel, emergency response. Each of these set Haiti back a step, delaying the progress in recovery.

The displacement of populations often gives media a visible and identifiable indicator of how much a disaster has affected a community. Haiti was no exception and very shortly after the earthquake people were taking refuge in camps in any open areas available, including large public fields, school playgrounds and even in the middle of roundabouts. These populations included those who had lost their houses, or were just too scared to live under their concrete roofs.

But progress has been made. In one area in which CARE was working, in a cramped and overcrowded district of Carrefour, west of Port-au-Prince itself, the small local market square had been taken over by tents, bedsheets and any form of covering they could find. The community identified those families most in need of support and CARE provided wooden shelters around the neighbourhood to these families.

Gradually, as these structures went up, the camp disappeared. For approximately 350 families, or around 1,750 people, in a community of a few thousand, CARE has had a direct impact. The rest of the community also benefits, as everyone who relied on the local market to either buy or sell goods, can regain a sense of normality.

The 350 shelters for the community in Carrefour are just a few of the 2500 that CARE has built since January 2010, and a small percentage of the 95,000 that the humanitarian community together have been able to provide.

These figures don't include the other forms of assistance, either in shelter - such as repairing houses or providing tools and support for people to undertake repairs themselves - or any other walk of life, including water, sanitation, health, education, or livelihoods, for example.

This is all part of Haitian President Joseph Michel Martelly's first strategy to encourage people to return to their original neighbourhoods. Another example is that CARE has been working with local authorities and communities to construct 228 latrines and three water fountains in earthquake-affected areas.

Life is returning to normal.

Now, nearly two years on, Port-au-Prince looks a lot different. Whilst I was there, I often barely noticed any change. But in even August 2010, having been out of the country for a month, returning made the progress apparent.

Since then, recovery has accelerated. A large number of camps have been disbanded, such as in the example above, and their inhabitants have returned home or found other places to stay. It is true, however, that many of the bigger camps still remain. There is still rubble littering the streets, there is still a shortage of housing and the situation remains dire.

But we must keep the current situation in context. Even before the earthquake, many Haitians were moving to Port-au-Prince in the hope of finding some form of work.

The earthquake didn't stop urbanisation - immediately after, many people left the capital, but the lack of livelihoods outside the country soon reversed that trend. The lucky ones who do find jobs might earn $1 per day - the same as the cost of a plate of food.

Given such chronic poverty and high unemployment, combined with the massive shortage of housing stock available in the capital, people have been settling informally there for a long time. The lowest estimate I have encountered is of 300,000 people without adequate shelter prior to the earthquake. The camps that formed after 12 January provided a centralised point for informal settlements.

NGOs, such as CARE, are trying desperately to replenish and augment the housing stock in Port-au-Prince, but it is not easy. I have seen cases where three different people all legitimately claim to own the same patch of land, each with reasons and documents to prove their case and constructing on disputed territory merely causes more problems. These situations are not rare. But where possible, the humanitarian community is repairing, facilitating and training to allow Haitians to recover to where they were before the earthquake, or better.

Progress has been made. But recovery was never going to be a quick process. In comparison, if a disaster of similar magnitude struck London, it would be a long time before the country was fully reconstructed and this is with significantly more infrastructure, resources and capacity than Haiti.

To respond to this, CARE and other agencies have agreed to provide support to Haiti for at least another three years. It is not, and never will be, an easy task, but it is one from which we should not shy away.

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