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Crisis response continues in Haiti, with an eye on challenges that pre-date the quake

© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-0064
A girl who is living on the streets in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, carries water collected from a UNICEF-supplied collapsible storage tank that was installed by the international NGO Action Contre la Faim.

Haiti's 'double disaster'
By Tim Ledwith

NEW YORK, USA, 24 January 2010 – Aid is reaching children in parts of Haiti devastated by the 12 January earthquake, but huge humanitarian challenges remain. Many of the disaster’s worst effects – including its impact on child health and safety – are aggravated by the country’s longstanding impoverishment and instability.

The earthquake that killed so many is, in fact, a double disaster: The serious development constraints that Haiti already faced have now worsened significantly.

Even before the quake, “the health system was relatively weak and the immunization coverage was not optimal,” said UNICEF Chief of Maternal, Newborn and Child Health Renee Van de Weerdt. “The rates of malnutrition were also relatively high,” she added. “We know that we have to deal with a very vulnerable population.”

In the critical area of water and sanitation, as well, pre-existing conditions in Haiti were dire.

“It’s one of the few countries in the world where sanitation coverage rate has actually declined over the past few years,” said UNICEF Chief of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Clarissa Brocklehurst. “The number of people who had access to what we would consider improved sanitation was only about 19 per cent. So we’re already starting from a low base.”

Building back even better than before
The head of UNICEF’s Chief of Gender and Rights Unit, Dan Seymour, noted that the consequences of an earthquake of this magnitude – though serious – probably would have been much less overwhelming in a more developed country.

"So the issue is not an earthquake,” he said. “It’s the intersection, the interaction, between the earthquake and the situation in Haiti, as a poor country with a very, very limited ability to provide for its children at the best of times.”

Tomorrow in Montreal, Canada, representatives of the Haitian Government and 10 other nations will meet to discuss long-term reconstruction in the stricken country. By addressing systemic problems that have hindered Haiti’s development, the international community and the Haitian people could build the country back better than before – laying the foundation for its children’s future.

Reaching children with life-saving support
Today, however, the top priority is still providing immediate relief for children at risk. They need to be found, fed, kept alive and kept safe.

And UNICEF is reaching children with life-saving support. Since the disaster struck, six plane-loads of UNICEF emergency supplies have arrived in Haiti and the neighbouring Dominican Republic. Several more flights are scheduled in the days ahead, carrying water, sanitation, health and nutrition supplies, as well as tents to shelter the displaced.

Safe water, too, is critical. UNICEF is now reaching more than 185,000 people with water, and its operations are scaling up daily at hospitals and distribution points around the capital. This assistance is needed to stave off outbreaks of waterborne diseases, which pose particularly deadly risks for young children.

“We’ve been working with our partners to bring in water tankering, so that we can deliver quantities of safe water to centralized water storage tanks,” said Ms. Brocklehurst.

Nutrition, health and protection
The World Food Programme, meanwhile, has provided around 3 million meals to more than 200,000 people in the earthquake zone. UNICEF is responsible for coordinating efforts to ensure proper feeding of infants and young children.

On the health front, the Ministry of Health and UNICEF will carry out an urgent immunization drive this week to protect 600,000 children under five from measles, tetanus and diphteria.

UNICEF is also supporting efforts to prevent the trafficking or unauthorized departure of minors.

Long experience in crisis situations shows that the interests of children are best served by making sure they are reunited with surviving members of their immediate or extended families. To that end, UNICEF is setting up safe spaces and family-tracing programmes for children who are lost or separated from their relatives. The agency has been reaching about 2,000 unaccompanied children a day; that figure is expected to double by tomorrow.

These and many other activities are under way to improve the difficult situation on the ground. Haiti had the highest rates of child and maternal mortality in the western hemisphere even before this catastrophe hit. Its children deserve nothing less than to have their basic needs met as quickly as possible in the current circumstances.

“UNICEF’s long-term relationship with Haiti started long before today,” said Mr. Seymour. “UNICEF will still be there long into the future.”

Elizabeth Kiem contributed to this story.






22 January 2010: UNICEF correspondent Elizabeth Kiem reports on the underlying problems that make the Haiti earthquake response especially challenging.
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