Weeks after a 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck southwestern Haiti, the need for humanitarian aid and investment remains urgent. 1.2 million people, including some 540,000 children, lack shelter, clean water, healthcare, and sufficient food, according to UNICEF. On August 25th, the United Nations launched a Flash Appeal calling for $187.3 million to address Haiti’s humanitarian crisis. However, political instability, insecurity, and constrained access to rural communities pose significant challenges to the relief efforts.
On August 14th, an earthquake devastated Haiti’s Tiburon Peninsula, located around four hours west of Port-au-Prince, the country’s capital. The earthquake’s effects were compounded by Tropical Storm Grace two days later, which brought heavy rains that caused further destruction and hindered emergency response efforts. Over 2,200 people were killed, over 12,200 were injured, and tens of thousands of homes were destroyed. More than 340 people are still missing.
Some 4.4 million Haitians in a country of 11.5 million are facing acute food insecurity (Crisis level or higher on the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification). This includes 1.1 million people now in need of emergency food aid in Nippes and Sud, two of the districts hit hardest by the earthquake. In addition to urgent food aid, investment in shoring up local agricultural production ahead of the October planting season is critical. According to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, approximately 60% of rural Haitians rely on agriculture for their livelihoods. Small farmers are often undercut by food aid in disaster relief efforts, reducing the resilience of local food production systems and promoting dependence on foreign aid.
Left without clean water and adequate sanitation, hundreds of thousands of Haitians are at risk of life-threatening waterborne diseases, including cholera. According to the Red Cross, over 212,000 people are affected by damaged water systems. More than 60 healthcare facilities were damaged in the earthquake, leaving Haiti’s already overburdened healthcare system even more poorly equipped to deal with the crisis. Furthermore, diverting medical supplies to care for the earthquake victims threatens to impede Haiti’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been among the slowest in the Western hemisphere. More than 300 schools were additionally destroyed in the earthquake, increasing the chances that Haiti will see a rise in the migration of vulnerable, unaccompanied children.
Haiti is a nation haunted by frequent natural disasters – the effects of which are exacerbated by deforestation – political instability, and high levels of poverty. (Around 60% of the population lives below the poverty line.) Last month’s earthquake came at a time when Haiti was especially vulnerable, still reeling in the aftermath of the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse on July 7th. Distrust of the de facto government installed in the power vacuum that Moïse’s death left behind is widespread among the people of Haiti. An increase in gang violence following the assassination has affected some 1.5 million Haitians and displaced 19,000, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (U.N.O.C.H.A.), and gang activity on the major road linking Port-au-Prince to the southwestern peninsula continues to hinder humanitarian efforts. These efforts were already complicated by the usual logistical challenges associated with accessing remote areas. According to Haiti’s Civil Protection Agency, about 80% of those affected by the earthquake live in rural areas, but aid delivery has been disproportionately focused on larger, more easily accessible population centres.
The ability of the new government, headed by Prime Minister Ariel Henry, to centralize relief efforts and effectively direct aid to the rural populations with the greatest need has been limited. As with past natural disasters in a country that is sometimes called the Republic of N.G.O.s, the humanitarian response to last month’s earthquake has been largely coordinated by aid organizations rather than by the Haitian government. However, N.G.O.s and U.N. agencies are increasingly recognizing the importance of partnering their relief efforts with local Haitian organizations, especially to co-ordinate aid to rural communities. Ramesh Rajasingham, U.N.O.C.H.A.’s assistant secretary-general and deputy emergency relief co-ordinator, has called local organizations and grassroots networks “the unsung heroes of this response.”
This natural disaster has hit a country already plagued by political instability and social unrest at the worst possible moment. Relief efforts have been complicated by the fragility of the country’s new government, civil unrest, insecurity including gang violence, and logistical challenges. Urgent efforts, involving national and international agencies in cooperation with local partners, are needed to address these challenges and to scale up the humanitarian response in Haiti.
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