Diálogo / November 6, 2012
By Larry Luxner
The United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) arrived in 2004 to provide security in the wake of political unrest, and ended up helping Haiti dig out of the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that struck its capital, Port-au-Prince, nearly three years ago.
On Oct. 24, MINUSTAH once again mobilized its 12,855 uniformed peacekeeping troops, police officers and civilian personnel — this time in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which dumped 20 inches of rain on the Caribbean nation in a 24-hour period.
Sandy’s fierce winds and subsequent flooding killed 54 Haitians, left tens of thousands more homeless, and destroyed roughly 70 percent of the food crops in southern Haiti, including plantains, bananas and maize, leaving some 1.2 million people at risk.
“Our major concern facing us right now is increasing food insecurity,” said Nigel Fisher, resident commissioner of all United Nations activities in Haiti and MINUSTAH’s deputy representative. “We estimate that up to 1.5 million out of a population of 10 million are at high risk of malnutrition. This means we are going into rapid response on food security, with obviously targeted nutrition and feeding programs for women and children. We’re also looking to put together work programs, repairing houses, bridges and roads.”
Fisher, speaking to Diálogo by phone Thursday from Port-au-Prince, said “we still have 2,500 people who cannot go back to their homes because their land was washed away. They are in community safe houses and shelters, and are being provided with mattresses, blankets and other supplies.”
MINUSTAH mobilizes help for victims
Hurricane Sandy left a trail of destruction across the Caribbean, killing 11 Cubans and damaging 200,000 homes in Santiago de Cuba and Holguín before plowing into the northeastern United States, where it killed 106 people and devastated parts of New York and New Jersey; damages there are now estimated to exceed $50 billion.
Sandy, which finally dissipated on Oct. 31, also caused several deaths and $300 million worth of damage to the Bahamas, as well as severe flooding in Jamaica, according to a report from the Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility.
But nowhere was the destruction proportionally worse than in Haiti, where the government has declared a month-long state of emergency. Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe, appealing for international help, has described the situation on the ground in Haiti as “frightening” — leading a number of countries to offer assistance, as well as groups like Doctors Without Borders and the World Health Organization.
“MINUSTAH has been surveying infrastructure damage by helicopter. We’ve identified a number of roads and bridges in the southwestern peninsula, and we’re focusing on one in particular near Jeremie, the capital of Grande Anse, which has been cut off because the bridge is down. We’ve also done an inventory of our available material assets for building and engineering, and we’re offering those to the government,” said Fisher.
“We’ve also mobilized vehicles to help with distribution,” he added. “We’ve had to use helicopters to reach communities on several occasions because they’ve been cut off by swollen rivers.”
Johan Peleman, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Haiti, told reporters that between 15,000 and 20,000 people have seen their houses completely destroyed, damaged or flooded due to the impact of Sandy, which struck only two months after August’s Hurricane Isaac.
“The most vulnerable IDPs [internally displaced persons] that were living in camps have been evacuated before the storm and we are now, with the humanitarian community and the UN family, repairing tents, handing out new tarpaulins so that they can go back to live in more favorable conditions because a lot of light structures were obviously completely destroyed by the storm,” said Peleman.
MINUSTAH: Food situation may provoke increasing social unrest
MINUSTAH operates in Haiti on a $648.4 million annual budget, which had just been renewed before the latest disaster struck. The mission currently has 10 aircraft including nine helicopters at its disposal, and relies on the services of 7,340 peacekeeping troops, 1,351 police officers, 1,790 formed police units, 2,274 civilians and 100 government personnel. Nineteen countries contribute to the peacekeeping force, while 46 countries maintain police officers in Haiti under the MINUSTAH banner.
Fisher said MINUSTAH is working with the World Health Organization, UNICEF and other bigger players in a coordinated humanitarian response to the effects of Sandy.
“We’ve seen an increase in street demonstrations,” he said. “We do believe some of them are politically manipulated, but there is an underlying frustration with the pace of development — and the storms have decreased harvests, which means there is increased dissatisfaction. We see a worsening social and economic situation.”
Sandy slammed into Haiti not even two weeks after the inauguration of the $300 million Caracol Industrial Park, a sprawling free zone along the country’s relatively unaffected north coast that promises to employ 20,000 garment and other factory workers over the next five years. The UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean said Haiti’s economy will grow by 6 percent this year, but that was before the storm hit.
Floodwaters lead to increase in cholera cases
The most immediate concern is Sandy’s impact on agricultural land, which had suffered earlier in the year from drought conditions. Then Tropical Storm Isaac came along, knocking about 40 percent of this year’s food crops out of production. Sadly, said Fisher, “the areas hardest hit by Sandy were the remaining productive areas spared by Isaac.”
Gregoire Goodstein, chief of mission for the International Organization for Migration in Haiti, told the Financial Times: “The situation is particularly serious; in Haiti, there are major needs in terms of food crops destroyed, first by Hurricane Isaac and now Sandy.”
Of the country’s 140 communes, or counties, 60 of them saw widespread destruction of crops and livestock. At the same time, rising floodwaters have triggered an increase in cholera cases.
“We already had 39 cholera treatment centers damaged or destroyed by the previous storm. Now another 22 are damaged in the south of the country. This is a significant percentage of the total,” said Fisher, noting that more than 600,000 Haitians have already been infected with cholera since the January 2010 earthquake, and that more than 7,500 people have died.
“We are launching a new humanitarian appeal for the country,” he said. “The issue is that many donors are now pulling out funding, saying it’s time to move on to longer-term issues. But we still have 350,000 people in camps, and we still have a cholera epidemic and increasing food insecurity.”