By James Reinl, United Nations Correspondent, The National
NEW YORK // The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, has described a “race against time” to protect earthquake survivors living in makeshift camps from mudslides and disease brought about by the coming seasonal rains.
More than two months after a magnitude-7 earthquake devastated the capital, Port-au-Prince, many of Haiti’s 1.3 million homeless await relocation to purpose-built camps, with aid groups blaming delays on UN and Haitian officials. Survivors trudge daily through muddy camps awaiting the rains.
After visiting a tarpaulin city of 50,000 homeless Haitians on a former golf course on Sunday, Mr Ban acknowledged the UN was “behind schedule” for rehousing survivors and warned that the makeshift homes could be “easily swept away” by heavy downpours.
Marilyn Allien, president of the Haiti-based branch of the anti-graft group Transparency International, said the camp, in the wealthy suburb of Pétionville, was “very muddy” after a weekend deluge and warned of an impending health crisis.
“It is a breeding ground for disease. We are very sure that there are going to be epidemics beginning if something is not done very quickly to put these people into more permanent decent housing,” she said.
“There was a danger of landslides even before the earthquake. But with so many dead bodies still buried in the rubble, we are very concerned about the landslides unearthing corpses in these wet conditions.”
Sean Penn, 49, the actor who has been providing camp dwellers with food and medicine through the Jenkins-Penn Haiti Relief Organization with a Los Angeles entrepreneur, Diana Jenkins, decried the “impossible kind of situation” for survivors of the January 12 tragedy, which left 230,000 dead.
On Tuesday, Mr Ban said the UN has provided tents and tarpaulins to 700,000 homeless Haitians and pledged to reach the remaining 600,000 by the end of next month, before the heaviest rains in May and the hurricane season this summer and autumn.
The South Korean diplomat described five sites around the capital where the UN planned to move those living in makeshift homes to “where they will be safer and better cared for”. The first relocations could begin this week.
Experts warn that the government has wasted precious time negotiating contracts with landowners, and that the UN and regional heavyweights such as the United States have failed to pressure Haitian officials to act fast enough. Anna Neistat, an expert on emergencies for the New York-based interest group Human Rights Watch, claimed that the co-ordination between the UN and the Haitian government was weak and has led to “mutual irritation” as the heavy rains draw closer.
“We are running out of time. Right now we need action that will protect people in the coming weeks,” she said. “They’ve been there for a couple of months now and, however squalid and horrible their conditions are, they have made these camps their home.
“Before they move they need to see something happening and be convinced they are moving to a better place. Nobody can be relocated against their will.”
Ms Allien described deeper concerns about a potential conflict involving Haiti’s tourism minister, Patrick Delatour, who is reported to be gaining from relocation projects, as part owner of one of the country’s biggest building firms, GDG Concrete and Construction.
“It is a conflict of interest,” she said. “If you have shares in a private firm, that firm has no business bidding for government contracts. It goes against Haiti’s legislation on matters of public procurement, which has now gone out the window because of this state of emergency.”
Haiti unveiled the first draft of its grand reconstruction plan yesterday, estimating that US$11.5 billion (Dh42bn) would be needed to help the country rebuild. Prepared by the government with the assistance of the international community, the Preliminary Damage and Needs Assessment will provide the framework for discussions at a major donors conference in New York on March 31.
In a sign of growing impatience with the Haitian government, Mr Ban urged the country’s president, René Préval, to devise a “concrete, well-thought-out plan for the future” before he attends the New York meeting.
“I therefore asked President Préval and his government to come … with an agenda of Haiti’s national priorities and a strategic action plan for the country’s recovery and reconstruction,” Mr Ban said. “We are at a critical moment.”
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