By Tim Ledwith
NEW YORK, USA, 14 January 2010 - UNICEF is part of a massive international relief effort now under way to assist up to 3.5 million people affected by Tuesday's 7.2-magnitude earthquake in Haiti.
But while essential supplies from UNICEF, its UN partners and other humanitarian agencies have started arriving in quake-shattered communities, the survivors' dire needs severely outpace available resources on the ground.
Meanwhile, aid agencies themselves have suffered significant losses of staff and facilities. For the first time today, UNICEF was able to contact all of its staff members in the country. "They are safe and sound," said UNICEF Director of Emergency Programmes Louis-Georges Arsenault. "But it's very, very dreadful for them, because they are all sleeping on the floor. They have very little capacity to operate."
Relief effort launched
Overall casualty estimates in Haiti are high, as search and rescue teams comb the rubble for survivors. And the number of deaths is likely to increase without more medical aid, food, safe water, sanitation supplies and shelter materials.
UNICEF has released a total of $3.4 million in emergency funding for Haitian quake relief, while the United Nations as a whole has released $10 million from its Central Emergency Response Fund. Even more funding will be needed for relief and recovery in the coming days and weeks, however.
In a commentary posted today by CNN International, UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Mia Farrow addressed the funding issue. She urged her fellow citizens to give generously in support of the quake response, with a focus on children, who comprise nearly half of Haiti's population of 10 million.
"In any disaster, children are the most vulnerable," wrote Ms. Farrow, who visited Haiti for UNICEF during the devastating 2008 hurricane season there. "We have the power to ensure that this particularly merciless act of nature does not steal any more than it already has from children whose lives were so precarious to begin with."
First shipment of aid
Aid delivery poses yet another challenge, with roads, electric power sources, communications systems and other infrastructure destroyed in many areas.
Last night a cargo plane provided by the Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies landed in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, with UNICEF supplies bound for Haitian quake victims. On board were water-purification tablets, tarpaulins and tents for temporary housing, and oral rehydration salts to combat the effects of diarrhoea caused by contaminated water.
The supplies were to be trucked over the border into Haiti today.
Land, sea and air
Another chartered plane from UNICEF's regional supply hub in Panama was scheduled to land this afternoon in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, where the airport is damaged but has been open for humanitarian flights.
According to media reports, though, the airport was temporarily closed this afternoon due to congestion and limited runway space. At this writing, it is unclear whether the UNICEF flight will be able to land there.
A ship carrying emergency supplies from Panama has arrived in the capital, in spite of serious quake damage to the seaport. Additional aid shipments by land, sea and air are expected to continue for the foreseeable future.
"We have been approached by other partners such as UPS and British Airways," said the Emergency Coordinator at UNICEF's Supply Division, Jean-Cédric Meeùs. "They will offer us some free space on commercial cargo planes from Europe to Panama or to Miami. From there, either through our logistics partners or by our own means, we will send them to Port-au-Prince or Santo Domingo."
'The devastation is staggering'
At a meeting of the UNICEF Executive Board in New York yesterday, Haiti's UN Ambassador, Hon. Léo Mérorès, formerly a Board Vice-President, spoke about the unfolding tragedy in his homeland - and efforts to respond.
"UNICEF teams are working assiduously in the country," he said, "not only in the capital but also in other cities, because in addition to Port-au-Prince, the major towns in the interior have also suffered."
Ambassador Mérorès went on to express his hope that "the situation will be stabilized fairly soon" and his appreciation that UN agencies and other international partners are ready and willing "to assist Haiti in its hour of need."