As part of the UN relief and recovery effort, UNEP (United Nations Environmental Program) is focused on promoting a sustainable recovery for Haiti by minimizing the environmental damage from reconstruction and ensuring there is adequate, long-term investment in natural resource management. Prior to the 12 January earthquake, Haiti was already the poorest and most environmentally degraded country in the Caribbean, and its largely destroyed rural environment could not fully support its population. For example, the total forest cover was approximately 2% in a country where 75% of energy demands were satisfied by wood fuel, and a lack of trees had in turn caused significant soil erosion.
The massive damage from the earthquake has now exacerbated the sustainability problems in rural and urban areas, according to UNEPs Haiti Program Manager, Andrew Morton. The demand for timber poles for tents and construction is accelerating the rate of deforestation and this is one impact which will be very difficult to mitigate, Mr. Morton said. A new and highly visible problem is debris and waste management in the Port-au-Prince region where the city is literally choking on building rubble and garbage because dumping is generally uncontrolled.
UNEP is working with the Haitian Ministry of Environment, the UN and non-governmental organizations to try and turn around the environmental situation, but the people of Haiti and the international community have a major recovery challenge in front of them, Mr. Morton added. Field-based rapid assessments since 13 January identified numerous environmental issues for the short and medium term, including the disposal of medical waste, rubble and demolition material, secondary spills and hazardous chemicals, geological and flood risks for camps and the environmental impact of massive population displacement.
Jointly with the Haitian government, UNEP is identifying opportunities for investment, for example, in erosion control to help increase the productivity of farmland, and in clean energy by establishing a Haiti Improved Stoves Network to introduce more fuel-efficient stoves and reduce the demand for charcoal. UNEP has conducted environmental assessments of camp management in Haiti and is also part of a working group on timber issues which is promoting a sustainable wood chain in Haiti as part of developing a national wood market.
UNEPs post-earthquake activities in Haiti are supported with funding from the governments of Ireland and Norway. Through its Disasters and Conflicts Program, UNEP has been working with the Government of Haiti since 2008 and opened a project office in Port-au-Prince in January 2009.