February 26, 2010
Red Cross: More land needed for Haitians

MORE LAND must urgently be made available as close as possible to the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, so that people who want to leave the improvised settlements that sprang up after last month’s earthquake can do so, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) said on Friday, February 19.{{more}}

There are more than 300 such settlements all over Port-au-Prince and many more in Leogane, which was almost completely destroyed in the 12 January disaster, and the southern port of Jacmel, which is less seriously damaged.

In Port-au-Prince, the UN has identified 19 settlements which need urgent “decongestion” ahead of the rainy season, which starts on average at the beginning of April. So far, work on organized resettlement has begun at one new site: La Piste, a disused airport.

The Haitian National Red Cross Society (HNRCS) has at least 5,000 volunteers available who can help make new sites safer by helping with water and sanitation work. Several other Red Cross societies active in the earthquake operation will provide basic water and sanitation and health services at La Piste.

An increasing proportion of the people in the improvised settlements now live under shelter materials – mainly tarpaulins – fixed to the ground or to the ruins of their houses using stakes and tools included in shelter-relief kits.

The shortage of available land in and around Port-au-Prince is the principal reason why it has not been possible to move more people into tents, as many Haitians have understandably demanded. If people in an improvised settlement were to be moved in situ into tents spaced far enough apart to be safe, a significant proportion would have to vacate the site.

Tents are regarded as unsatisfactory within the humanitarian community for a number of reasons:

* If not generously spaced, they are notorious fire hazards,

* They are expensive: within a given budget, the number of people who can be helped with tents is much lower than with tarpaulins,

* They cannot be used for any other purpose once alternatives become available,

* Their manufacturing quality is erratic and they are often not waterproof,

* They have short life-spans.

Tarpaulins, by contrast, are practical and versatile; they are easy to buy, ship and distribute; they can be used as homes, kitchens and to shelter small businesses; and people can stand up under them.

However, the IFRC’s overall emergency-shelter strategy includes the provision of 10,000 tents outside the capital, says IFRC Head of Operations for Haiti, Nelson Castaño.”We will provide tents in Jacmel and Leogane and near Port-au-Prince when we are sure the locations are safe and where adequate space is available.”

“The focus of our operation, of necessity, has to be tarpaulins,” he adds. “But outside Port-au-Prince, especially, we will do tents in parallel.” To date, the IFRC has distributed nearly 1,000 tents nationwide and a consignment of several hundred tents from the Danish Red Cross is due shortly in Leogane, where space is less of an issue than in the capital.

Neither tents nor tarpaulins, however, will provide more than minimal protection from the Haitian rainy season which peaks in May, when Port-au-Prince gets an average 230 mm of rain and sometimes as much as 50 mm in two hours. The hurricane season, which begins later in the year, is of special concern.

In the longer term, the IFRC – which earlier this month took over from the International Organization for Migration as the coordinator in Haiti of the multi-agency shelter “cluster” under the UN system – is moving as fast as possible to provide “transitional housing”.

A prototype transitional house, built with local materials and labour, is nearing completion in an area of the IFRC base camp in Port-au-Prince, and full-scale procurement is underway. It is hoped work on construction of the first houses will begin before the rainy season.

The Red Cross and Red Crescent plans to build eventually at least 20,000 transitional houses in quake-affected regions of Haiti and hopes to complete a significant number before the hurricane season later in the year.

The IFRC’s regional base camp in Leogane has begun contingency planning for the rains, using an early deadline of mid-March, looking for ways to raise the generators that power water-purification equipment off the ground and move staff tents to well-drained locations inside the camp.