Life after catastrophe

The world is responding to the horror of Haiti's earthquake, but rebuilding a country and the lives of its people is a formidable task that can take decades.

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The world is responding to the horror of Haiti's earthquake, but rebuilding a country and the lives of its people is a formidable task that can take decades. Suryatapa Bhattacharya looks at lessons learnt from previous disasters. As Haiti faces one of its biggest-ever natural disasters, aid agencies are rushing to provide immediate emergency relief. As has been the case with other recent catastrophes around the world - from South Asia to West Africa - the chances of long-term redevelopment and recovery are dependent as much on what happens in the immediate aftermath as in the continued support of the international community.

After an earthquake in the Indian state of Gujarat in 2001, which measured 7.9 on the Richter scale, thousands were left dead and millions homeless. What followed was a reconstruction effort that is now being held up as a model to deal with natural disasters. Children were vaccinated early on against deadly contagious diseases, while reconstruction efforts included building earthquake-resistant houses.

In Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, the damage to infrastructure has been immense, since its overwhelmingly poor population lived in crowded, shanty towns or shoddily built cement homes. Like Turkey, Haiti sits on a fault line that leaves it open to future earthquakes and more catastrophe unless there is a concerted government effort to impose strict building codes. Another area of concern for aid agencies is donor apathy. Haiti is one of the world's poorest countries and has already seen its fair share of upheavals; floods, tropical storms and political rioting. Comparisons have been made with West Africa, where flooding over the past three years has exhausted the international community, leading to funding shortfalls and what one aid organisation called "a forgotten disaster".

Will the world - once the dust has settled and the satellite news lorries have left - turn its back on Haiti? "The concern is long-term reconstruction," said Stephanie Bunker, a spokeswoman with the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs in New York. "It is impossible to predict but I am hopeful that the visibility of this crisis, that this time, we will get significant amounts." The UN yesterday launched a "flash appeal" for US$550 million and Ms Bunker said that already a significant amount has been pledged.

Ms Bunker said the "tremendous" response by donors after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami wiped out entire towns and villages in 12 countries helped fuel immediate and long-term reconstruction. "With Haiti," Ms Bunker said, "I only hope the same thing will prevail." Some aid agencies, such as Oxfam, specialise in emergency response, while others such as ActionAid focus on trauma counselling for children. Yet others, such as the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), are looking into medium- and long-term plans to reinstate agricultural practices by providing support to farmers - rural and urban - after they have evaluated the environmental damage caused to farmlands in and around Port-au-Prince.

"They are very dependent on key support from agencies and in addition to structural problems in the area, they have been hit by a lot of disasters," said Sarah Gillam, the international head of media and images with ActionAid. "We are appealing for money so we can purchase locally made products wherever possible." One of ActionAid's priorities in disasters such as the Boxing Day tsunami and the Haiti earthquake is making sure children and young people recover from the shock. For example, children tend to emulate adults and she said they are worried about the young scavenging through the rubble looking for survivors.

"The longer you leave it, the more damaging it will be," said Ms Gillam from London, before she boarded a flight for Haiti. Like their relief efforts in Bangladesh, where they have assisted children displaced or orphaned by frequent flooding and cyclones, the organisation will enrol children in a "disaster risk reduction project", where they will learn how to respond to a natural disaster. In Bangladesh, children were taught to move livestock to higher ground and inform their parents.

In Haiti, ActionAid plans to engage children in drawing, playing and storytelling to distract them from the immediate trauma before embarking on a more long-term course about responding to earthquakes. "It is hard to say at this point how long it will take the country to recover," she said. "The NGO reports that are coming out say they have not seen anything like this before. It is one of the biggest disasters to hit the country."

Early estimates stated that up to a third of the country's population may have been affected by the earthquake. Kayan Jaff, based in Abu Dhabi and the UN head of mission of FAO and the UN resident co-ordinator in the UAE and Qatar, said that medium and long-term redevelopment work was already underway in Haiti. As he tried to mobilise cargo planes from Dubai to carry equipment for immediate relief, such as lightweight tents, buckets, mosquito nets and collapsible jerry cans, Mr Jaff said FAO representatives were "joining the international rescue and operations team to assess the impact of the earthquake and over the weeks and months to come, FAO will play the role to fully rehabilitate and reconstruct efforts of agriculture."

"The issue really is food security," he said. Once the initial assessment takes place, various teams at the UN will co-ordinate efforts to redevelop the farm land in and around the capital by providing tools so they can farm again. Haiti has three growing seasons, where mostly small scale agriculture of staples such as maize and wheat, along with bananas, sugarcane and tropical vegetables and fruits are grown.

"We will give them all the means they need to restart their agriculture," said Mr Jaff. "Farming plays a very important role in Haiti."