Shelter Remains Critical for Haitians, say Relief Groups

Six months after a massive 7.0 earthquake devastated the Caribbean nation of Haiti, relief agencies have said that providing adequate shelter for survivors is both their biggest concern and biggest challenge.

Nearly 1.5 million Haitians are currently living improvised camps, many near the shattered capital of Port-au-Prince, according to the United Nations. And with the hurricane season already here, worries about whether more lives could be lost to flooding are high.

"Aid groups have never had to build so many transitional shelters of this durability so quickly," said Ton van Zutphen, response director for World Vision, which distributed some 82,000 tarps and tents in the early months following the quake.

World Vision is currently working to speed up transitional shelter projects while continuing their assistance to camp dwellers, although issues such as land rights, rubble removal, and shelter design have slowed progress.

"Providing decent shelter in a city choked with millions of tons of rubble is proving enormously difficult," says Brendan Gormley, chief executive of Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), a UK-based coalition of relief groups.

He adds: "People will need jobs to pay rent on properties that have yet to be repaired or rebuilt, at sites that have yet to be cleared, where the ownership of every scrap of land is likely to be hotly disputed."

Haiti was already the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere when the quake hit on January 12, killing over 225,000 people and destroying much of the country's meager infrastructure.

Such conditions have made recovery efforts more challenging than usual.

"In 35 years of humanitarian work I have never seen such a challenge confronting survivors of a natural disaster and the DEC agencies which are trying to help them," Gormley said, adding that he was shocked to learn that sanitation and water services provided by DEC have improved upon conditions prior to the quake.

"Haiti's reality is unbelievably complex – this is still the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere," says Lizzette Robleto of Catholic relief group Progressio. "It needs targeted support, both from its own people and internationally, to ensure that it is able to build back better."

Despite difficulties, however, groups say that significant advancements in Haiti's recovery have been made.

One measure of success has been that no major outbreaks of diseases such as measles, cholera, or diarrhea have broken out in the temporary camps.

Reopened schools and stable supplies of food and water have also provided signs of hope.

"There are millions of people receiving food, water, shelter. There are child protection centers up and running, some schools have been opened ... there have been no major disease outbreaks. Violence has been managed," commented International Aid Minister Bev Oda.

But while some are disputing whether the glass is half full or half empty at the six month recovery mark, aid agencies all agree that those participating are in for the long haul.

"It is clear that we are only at the beginning of what will be a long and painful journey but that I know DEC member agencies are committed to do whatever is necessary to support the people of Haiti," said Gormley.

"While we're grateful for the generous donations that are making our life-saving work possible, the reality is it will take more than money to move Haiti to the next stage," Zutphen notes.

"Strong coordination and clear direction from the national government are paramount to accomplish the many tasks at hand here in Haiti."

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