By Guy Hubbard
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, 12 February 2010 – A month after the 12 January earthquake that levelled densely populated areas of Haiti, UNICEF Director of Emergency Operations Louis-Georges Arsenault travels by helicopter over the cities of Port -Au-Prince and Leogane, and on to the southern port of Jacmel.
He is here to assess UNICEF’s response to the quake and the continued needs of affected children and families.
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From the air, the devastation takes on a new aspect. Entire city blocks have been reduced to piles of rubble, and almost all of Leogane has been destroyed.
Having seen the situation firsthand and visited several makeshift camps for the displaced, Mr. Arsenault is mindful of the double disaster that has befallen Haiti – which, even before the earthquake, had the highest rates of child and maternal mortality in the Western Hemisphere.
“A country that before was on its knees is really now flat out,” he says.
Focus on child survival
In the wake of this catastrophe, UNICEF and its UN, government and NGO partners have organized a massive aid effort, delivering life-saving supplies to those who need them most.
Given the scale of humanitarian needs in the quake zone, this effort has achieved an enormous amount since 12 January. But there is much more to be done in response to the children’s emergency in Haiti, where nearly 40 per cent of the population is under the age of 14.
“What UNICEF has been focusing on, in the first place, is survival,” says Mr. Arsenault. “We’ve been able to catch up quickly with the water supply, which has been our main life-saving activity.”
He notes that UNICEF’s work on safe water and sanitation is being supplemented by food distribution with the World Food Programme (WFP) and “a very good combination” of other urgently needed interventions.
Despite losing its own offices and storage facilities in the earthquake, UNICEF was quick to respond when the disaster struck.
One month on, over 900,000 people are receiving safe water every day at 300 sites across Port-au-Prince, Leogane and Jacmel. Sanitation facilities are also being installed in camps throughout the affected areas; in the coming weeks, over 3,000 latrines will have been built by UNICEF and partners Oxfam, CARE and the International Committee of the Red Cross in Port-Au-Prince alone.
Due to widespread population displacement, malnutrition rates – high in Haiti at the best of times – are expected to rise. So UNICEF and partners have opened more than 80 sites catering to the outpatient treatment of severe, acute malnutrition. Meanwhile, WFP’s food distribution network continues to reach displaced Haitians.
To prevent the spread of disease in the cramped, improvised displacement camps, UNICEF and the Ministry of Health have launched a nationwide immunization campaign, as well. The campaign is targeting children under seven with vaccinations against measles rubella, tetanus, diphtheria and whooping cough.
Child protection and education
“The humanitarian response will continue for some time, There’s no doubt about that,” says Mr. Arsenault. He adds that reaching hundreds of thousands of displaced people remains a major challenge, “not just for UNICEF, for the whole international community.”
Beyond basic survival, UNICEF’s core concern has been the safety of children either orphaned or separated from their families by the earthquake. UNICEF has been registering these children and placing them in child-friendly facilities, while working to trace their immediate or extended families. But the pressure is on; there have been reports of unaccompanied children falling prey to traffickers and being smuggled out of the country.
As child protection issues are addressed, another emerging issue is education. With approximately 5,000 schools damaged or destroyed, and half of the school-going population affected, Haiti’s education system has almost ceased to function.
In response, UNICEF has delivered School-in-Box kits containing basic learning and teaching materials to Port-au-Prince, and they are being distributed. Working with the Ministry of Education, UNICEF’s goal is to get as many children as possible back to school quickly.
UNICEF Representative in Haiti Guido Cornale is all too aware of the difficulties ahead.
“All school activities have been interrupted, not only in the earthquake-affected areas but also in the rest of the country, due to the state of emergency and due to the heavy migration of populations,” he explains. “This is a challenge we are facing now.”
Still, one month on, UNICEF and its partners are committed to continuing their life-saving interventions throughout Haiti’s earthquake zone. They are also building on those interventions to ensure that children are able to survive and even thrive in the aftermath of tragedy. Their future, and the future of their country, depends on building back better than before.