Haitians learn to live with disaster upon disaster

Reuters News
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Posted: Jan 10, 2015 12:55 PM

By Anastasia Moloney

PORT-AU-PRINCE (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Claude Enrico survived the earthquake that hit Haiti five years ago and helped pull people from under the rubble in the flattened capital Port-au-Prince.

Now he is dedicated to saving more lives in the disaster-prone Caribbean country.

Lying on two fault lines and in the path of hurricanes, Haiti is among the countries most at risk from natural disasters in the world, including floods, tsunamis and drought.

The 7.0-magnitude earthquake on Jan. 12, 2010, which killed more than 220,000 people, was a wake-up call to the government and international aid agencies about the dire need to protect Haitians from disasters and build resilience among communities to withstand shocks.

"We have to learn to live with natural phenomena," said Enrico, 37, a civil protection officer with Haiti's interior ministry. "It's inevitable they will come year after year. So we must train people what to do in an emergency and ensure families have an evacuation plan."

NETWORK OF VOLUNTEERS

He belongs to a network of 3,000 newly trained volunteers and paid staff, created in the aftermath of the earthquake, who work across Haiti's 10 provinces.

Trained in first aid and emergency response, they are on the frontline of government efforts to ensure Haiti is better prepared to deal with disasters and can save more lives.

"We still lack equipment, firefighters and more people need to be trained. But communities are more aware about how to keep safe. One of our key messages is to tell people not to cross rivers during a flood because that's often how people get killed," said Enrico at the National Emergency Operations Centre (COUN) in downtown Port-au-Prince.

Built in 2010 following the earthquake, the center is where government ministries and aid agencies meet to coordinate disaster response. The center, which includes a warehouse stocked with water, mattresses, hygiene and food kits, has been put to the test.

A cholera epidemic broke out in October 2010, which has claimed the lives of more than 9,000 people, followed by several tropical storms, including Hurricane Sandy, which killed 54 and forced 100,000 Haitians to evacuate their homes in 2012.

"In Haiti, it's the back-to-back accumulation and combination of disasters that puts pressure on the government and the people," said Thomas Pitaud, chief technical advisor to the government on national disaster risk management systems.

Each year in parts of Haiti, homes and animals are washed away, fields inundated, and food crops and grazing land destroyed by storms and floods, pushing up food prices.

With 60 percent of Haiti's population of 10 million living on less than $2 a day, even a small increase in food prices can mean families cannot afford to put enough food on the table.

DISASTER PREPAREDNESS

Five years after the earthquake, aid agencies say progress has been made in preparing communities on what to do when a disaster strikes, including early warning systems, simulation exercises and identifying shelters.

Other projects include building flood walls and drainage ditches, along with embankment and watershed protection projects to conserve water supplies and lessen the impact of floods and landslides.

But such schemes, along with the efforts of Haitians like Enrico, can only go so far to reduce the high exposure to disasters Haiti faces.

Far less progress has been made on reducing the risk of disasters in the first place, and ensure all new homes, hospitals and schools being built are earthquake resistant.

"You have an environment that's very degraded," said Pitaud, who also works for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Haiti.

"We're constantly responding from one catastrophe to another, so it's difficult to focus on reducing risk over the long-term and get funding."

URBAN SLUMS

A lack of urban planning and high levels of urbanization have led to more than 60 percent of Haitians living in densely populated slums in Port-au-Prince, which magnifies the damage and number of casualties disasters bring.

Angelique Hilaire lives with her three children in a gray brick one-room home perched precariously on a hillside slum.

Hilaire is only too well aware that she is exposed to flooding and landslides but has no option but to brace herself for the yearly hurricane season.

"I can't afford to rent anywhere else," she said. "Every time it rains I pray to God for it to stop. But what can I do?

Even a short downpour can leave the capital flooded as piles of rubbish on the streets and debris filled canals block drains, which exacerbates flooding.

Natural disasters linked to climate change will only get more frequent and extreme in the future, experts say.

Decades of deforestation have left Haiti even more exposed to natural disasters, with less than three percent of its original forest cover still intact, according to the UNDP.

This causes soil erosion and reduces the ability of soil to retain water, making Haiti more vulnerable to flooding and landslides. During heavy rainfall, there are few trees to stop water washing down the bare mountains.

While 5.5 million tree seedlings have been planted in Haiti by the UNDP since 2010, not enough has been done to stop people cutting down trees in the first place.

Selling charcoal, which comes from burning wood, is used for cooking and is a key source of income for many Haitians living in the countryside.  

"One challenge is to provide economic opportunities so farmers don't have to cut down trees," Pitaud said.

(Reporting By Anastasia Moloney; Editing by Astrid Zweynert)