Press conference by United Nations Coordinator in Haiti

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Following four major storms with the Caribbean hurricane season still only halfway over, the financing of labour-intensive early recovery activities in Haiti was critical if the 98 per cent deforested-country were to recover, and possibly even just to survive, the United Nations Humanitarian and Resident Coordinator in Haiti, Joel Boutroue, said at a Headquarters press conference today on the latest situation in that country.

He said early recovery activities included all those labour-intensive tasks that had to be carried out in order for communities to get back on their feet. Regardless of the amount of humanitarian assistance provided, early recovery was the key to a country's recovery.

As background, he said the first of the four storms that impacted Haiti was tropical storm Fay, which caused flooding in August. Heavy rains from major Hurricane Gustav caused destructive mudslides after making landfall in late August. In September, tropical storm Hanna passed over northern Haiti to bring heavy rains and floods, while major Hurricane Ike later caused flooding and mudslides.

So far, he said, very little apart from the "core fund" had been found to "jump start" early recovery. However, a "recovery framework" was expected to be ready by late November. Created jointly by the United Nations, the European Union and the World Bank under leadership of the Haitian Government, it would focus on three dimensions of intervention, those of food security, social services and "watershed management", or the environment as a whole.

He said the framework was based on lessons already learned from natural disaster situations. First, the investment in the environment needed to be greatly increased to reduce vulnerability. The investment in the safety net of social services also needed to be raised, and recovery needed to be guided by the principle of "building back better".

The situation in Haiti was particularly critical, he said, because the population had no coping mechanism. The island had been hit so hard by the tropical storms precisely because it was deforested. Tree coverage was, perhaps at most, 1.5 per cent. There was no industry, and productivity was low because of soil erosion. If the funds for the activities to be set out in the framework were not raised, the country would go into a vicious cycle of deepening poverty, instability, unrest and insecurity, with any kind of domino effects possible, including erratic population movements.

Those negative effects could be avoided with adequate resources because the capacity to act on the ground had already been developed, he said. The approach to disaster response was now fairly coherent, based on a general understanding of "how to go". Now, all that was missing were the resources to act in a situation that was at least stable at the moment, unless another hurricane hit. Food, water and non-food items were being distributed on a fairly regular basis throughout the country, including in remote areas despite logistical difficulties, because of the destruction of bridges and roads.

In combination with the food and fuel crisis that had already "brought the country to its knees", he said, Haiti had been set back to the level it had been at three years ago, in terms of economic growth and poverty rate. The substantial additional short-term resources required to make a difference in the long-term would have to address current limitations. With the current level of resources, for example, water distribution could not be carried out at the required level. Nor would they cover food distribution to the three million Haitians who had been made "food insecure" by a combination of factors.

He said that parts of Gonaïves had been completely destroyed. Food distribution was delivered to about 800,000 people. Current resources were insufficient to continue providing water and sanitation to those in shelters or those whose water systems had been destroyed.

In response to a question, he clarified that the deforestation responsible in large part for Haiti's vulnerability was ironically worsened with each natural disaster since, without any other resources, people had to cut down trees for shelter and cooking. Eighty percent of the population relied on charcoal to cook food. The environmental investment in Haiti would be directed into alternative resources.

In response to another question on reforestation efforts, he said Haiti was a very mountainous country, and environmental efforts were directed at "protecting" slopes through terracing, dikes, walls and canals. Reforestation and other agricultural activities were carried out on those terraces. Those "watershed activities" would be coupled with other community-based projects aimed at increasing the interest in reforesting, perhaps by offering incentives or subsidizing alternative energy sources. Investing in reforestation, however, required a "heavy" investment, about $100 million a year. It also called for a wait of three or four years before progress could be seen. But, it had to be done, and it had to start now.

Emphasizing that distribution of food, water and non-food-items was the focus of current relief activity in hard-hit Haiti, he said efforts were now being turned to extract people from shelters. Resources were being provided to enable the rebuilding of houses, not only because the structures were substandard for daily living, but because the school season was about to begin. Many of the shelters were school houses, and school feeding programmes were a major form of food distribution. Home rebuilding efforts, particularly in Gonaïves, were focused on putting up new structures in areas that would not be flooded in the next rain.

Agreeing with another correspondent that everything was not doom and gloom in Haiti, Mr. Boutroue summed up the social progress of the last years by saying that there was stability in Haiti, and crime was probably the lowest in the region. The short- and medium-term recovery activities needed to be funded for the purpose of preserving the stability over the long-term by delivering tangible results to the population now embattled by environmental conditions, as well as inflation. Much of the relief effort was conducted at the community level, for example, so as to put the future into the hands of community members.

Further, he said there were bilateral relief arrangements also aimed at quick tangible results, such as a $79 billion arrangement with Venezuela. While short-term relief was important, along with job creation in the environment sector, for example, the only long-term solution to Haiti's challenges was the reintroduction of foreign investment in the country. That would be achieved through the projection to the world of a safe and secure Haiti, one in which dialogue between the Government, Parliament, the private sector and the people put across the message of progress.

Finally, after clarifying the roles of the actors in the massive relief effort in Haiti, he emphasized that workers on projects were paid on the basis of "food and cash", so as to avoid creating a "dependency syndrome".

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