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UNICEF gears up efforts to earthquake-stricken Haiti

by Debbie Stowe, UNICEF consultant

On the afternoon of 12 January, Haiti was already struggling with myriad misfortunes. The poorest country in the Western hemisphere has a history of colonial interference, oppressive dictators, natural disasters, corruption, poor governance, violence and human rights abuses. Poverty, instability, high unemployment, illiteracy and malnourishment, unchecked crime, endemic corruption, unreliable public services and unsanitary conditions also beset the Caribbean state. Then the earth moved and everything got unimaginably worse.

Just before 5pm, a devastating 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck Haiti, its epicentre 25 kilometres west of the capital, Port-au-Prince. The tremor was exceptionally catastrophic, in part because the origin was close to the surface and in the vicinity of a high-density urban area. But the tragedy was exacerbated by Haiti’s pre-existing humanitarian conditions, creating what was termed a “double disaster”. Grinding poverty means that many Haitians live in ramshackle slum housing that had little chance of surviving the tremor. Many buildings were weak, bribes having been paid to avoid construction safety law. And the chaotic state of Haitian society was certain to inhibit any relief effort.

The death toll was enormous. People were trapped beneath buildings, frantically hoping that rescue would come before they succumbed to injury, hunger or thirst. Thousands more had lost their relatives and homes, left desperate for clean water, food and medical treatment. Some on the ground said the disaster was worse than the tsunami.

As is the case in many catastrophes, children bore the brunt. Not only do they lack the physical strength and stamina that can make the difference between life and death, but they are also more susceptible to potentially fatal conditions such as diarrhoeal diseases caused by contaminated water supply. Post-quake, as people fought over scarce resources, lone children would have had little chance of securing what they needed. A further threat took the form of those who prey on vulnerable young people for trafficking and exploitation, already a significant problem in the stricken country. Alone and unprotected, with the authorities’ focus elsewhere, Haiti’s children were facing multiple dangers. And with 46 percent of the country’s population under 18 years old, the quake was shaping up to be what UNICEF called “a children’s emergency”.

News teams relayed scenes of unimaginable horror. Piles of corpses polluted the air. Bodies were being unceremoniously buried in mass graves, as wave after wave of cadavers prevented even photos being taken for later identification. While people lay pinned under the rubble, waiting, praying for discovery and rescue as time, hope and life ebbed away, others fought over food, water, even funeral services. The escape of some prisoners when jails were destroyed added to people’s fears, as did continuing aftershocks. And still the death toll continued to soar.

Aid agencies had immediately responded. Despite serious damage to its own offices in Port-au-Prince, UNICEF was quick to provide first aid to the suffering country in the form of sanitation supplies, therapeutic foods, medical supplies and temporary shelter materials. The organisation also made it a priority to protect children who had been orphaned or separated from their families in the confusion, and reunite the latter with relatives. UNICEF teamed up with other agencies – such as the Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and World Food Programme – in an unprecedented joint relief effort. Corporate partners and celebrities also pitched in, offering direct assistance or campaigning to raise awareness and money.

An estimated three million people were affected. Children were treated for everything from broken bones to head trauma. Many underwent amputations. Screaming and wailing filled the air as hospitals were stretched to breaking point. As some people simply clung to life, others trailed the wards in a desperate search for their relatives, praying they were not among the unidentified corpses being piled into mass graves. Meanwhile, UNICEF continued its efforts, disseminating water and ready-to-eat food, providing shelter and setting up and publicising child-feeding centres and emergency health and immunisation points.

Over three months have now passed since the earthquake struck, and yet the magnitude of the tragedy means that UNICEF and other relief agencies remain in the

UNICEF has targeted its efforts at children, 1.5 million of whom have been caught up in the disaster. Nearly 60,000 children between nine months and seven years have received vital vaccinations against deadly diseases and Vitamin A supplements, as part of a wider immunisation campaign. The agency is also supporting 19 baby tents and 8 acute malnutrition management sites, tending to an estimated 20,000 infants up to one year old, 6,500 severely malnourished children, 50,000 pregnant and lactating women and 166,000 under-fives. And it is working with partners to get nutrition supplies to even more desperate Haitians.

emergency response phase, and are likely to be there for months to come. But progress has been made. Over three quarters of the 1.2 million Haitians made homeless by the quake are now in receipt of shelter materials. Thoughts are turning to the imminent rainy season, with plans to strengthen temporary shelters against potential hurricanes, move people from areas vulnerable to floods and landslides, and preposition supplies in case roads become impassable. Heavy rains could also further threaten sanitation, and over 5,000 latrine slabs have been issued to partners, providing hygienic facilities for more than a quarter of a million, as part of a multi-party effort to improve sanitary conditions. Meanwhile safe water is now reaching almost 900,000 people each day.

 

Efforts have also been made to keep children and women safe in the chaos that has followed the quake. Six camps are being patrolled and monitored to prevent violence against women. Nearly 80 Child Friendly Spaces are catering to 55,000 children, and registration of vulnerable children has reached 500. Support is on offer to victims of violence or trauma, while UNICEF is assisting social workers and government officials in the fight against child trafficking.

Children’s educational needs have also been a priority area. UNICEF is about to deliver the first 200,000 of 720,000 backpacks containing essential school supplies. Working in conjunction with Save the Children, 900 school tents covering over 90,000 children have been deployed with more on the way. In these bags and tents is the hope for Haiti’s future.

Over 200,000 people are thought to have lost their lives. Headlines and images from the disaster no longer dominate news broadcasts. But Haiti’s challenge is just beginning. UNICEF and its fellow aid agencies’ hope is that the world doesn’t look away from the country, but turns its compassion into the resources and the will to rebuild Haiti, better than before, from the rubble.

For more information about UNICEF actions in Haiti please visit our website: www.unicef.ro.

 

 

 

 

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