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Haiti's pressing need: rain-resistant shelter for 750,000 homeless

With the rainy season set to arrive in Haiti, aid organizers say the top priority is to bring in shelter that can withstand rain and even hurricanes. Some 750,000 people still do not have basic shelter or are crowded in with relatives and friends.

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• The World Food Program estimates it has enough food supplies – consisting almost exclusively of rice – on hand for several months. Now the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports a disappointing response to its Haiti appeal, which means that plans to ramp up Haiti’s spring planting season could fall short and leave Haiti more dependent on imported food.

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• The Port-au-Prince seaport, severely damaged by the quake, remains only partially open. Efforts to deliver materials for sturdier hurricane-resistant shelter will probably be adversely affected.

• The “humanitarian corridor” passing over land from the Dominican Republic into Haiti is literally sinking under the weight of convoys bringing in supplies. Part of the road just inside the Haitian border follows a lake shore – and the lake level is rising from mountain rains, disrupting deliveries. The US Army is working with Haitian officials to develop another route.

Rain-resistant shelter the top priority

But much of the medium-term relief effort is focused on shelter.

Haiti's government has identified several sites around Port-au-Prince where hurricane-resistant camps might be built. But, already, one of the sites is embroiled in controversy with the landowner, while shelter experts worry about how the heavier materials – lumber, aluminum sheeting – will get into the country.

“With only 2 to 3 percent of Haiti’s forest cover remaining, there’s no alternative but to import the great majority of the lumber they’re going to need,” says Gorav Seth, international programs manager with Trees for the Future, a Maryland-based organization that has been involved in Haiti in reforestation and agro-forestry projects since 2002.

Given Haiti’s two rainy seasons, he adds, an intensive planting of fast-growing “pole wood” could result in wood for structures a year or more hence – but not for this year’s rainy season. “The Dominican Republic next door could be a prime source of lumber, given its much stronger forestry protection policy,” Mr. Seth says, “but in any case it will have to come from outside Haiti.”

The US is set to host a donors’ conference for Haiti at the United Nations in New York in March. Some humanitarian officials hope the conference will rekindle the intense international interest and largess that followed the Jan. 12 quake.

“The government’s appeal for 200,000 tents has not been met, but now the need is for rain-resistant shelter,” says Bolduc.

The hope is that a high-profile conference and the prospect of a misery-multiplying rainy season will open aid coffers once again.


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