For many of the 1.5 million Haitians living in relief camps since the January 12 earthquake, shelter that is sturdier, more weatherproof and more secure cannot come soon enough. But the tremendous demand is balanced by the need to prepare temporary resettlement sites that can offer improved living conditions for up to three years with minimal impact on the environment.
Mollie Lemon, an employee at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, recently returned from six weeks supporting personnel from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in the country by lending her background in environmental science to help identify the best sites to resettle the many Haitians who are still living in tents.
USAID had provided the International Organization for Migration in Haiti with $15 million in emergency funding to improve ad hoc and temporary shelters for those affected by the disaster, including the development of new sites and resettlement.
Lemon’s group operated from the perspective that environmentally sustainable settlements are critical to the well-being of the disaster survivors as well as the environment. A poorly planned site could leave people vulnerable to flooding, landslides and diseases.
“You’re trying to respond quickly to the situation posed by this humanitarian crisis while at the same time realizing that people are probably going to be living in these for a fairly long time, and so it’s about striking that balance between getting people moved into a safe place as soon as possible while at the same time following the standards and the environmental best practices,” she told America.gov.
Those standards have been set by international organizations such as the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), which is drawing attention to the need to minimize the long-term environmental damage from short-term resettlement camps. Such damage can be caused by pollution, sewage, debris, flooding, deforestation and other factors.
According to the UNEP’s website, even before the earthquake, “Haiti was the poorest, least stable and most environmentally degraded country in the Caribbean. This environmental degradation had severe and wide-reaching social and economic impacts, as the largely destroyed rural environment could not fully feed its population or provide adequate livelihoods.”
The population “continues to suffer from ongoing poverty, food insecurity, health problems, and disaster vulnerability, which are strongly interlinked with severe environmental issues such as extensive deforestation, soil erosion, inadequate waste management, water scarcity and coastal zone degradation, many of which have been further exacerbated by the recent earthquake,” UNEP says.
Lemon helped assess potential camp sites that will house up to 30,000 people by identifying areas that would be the most environmentally sound for human settlement. Attention was given to the slope and drainage of the land, the amount of rocks or boulders that could affect construction, whether it was located in a flood plain, and proximity to a clean water source, among other factors.
“In the case of Haiti, where the environmental problems are compounded, there is a chance to incorporate environmental practices where they perhaps weren’t being incorporated beforehand,” Lemon said.
Lemon and other team members surveyed current shelter residents to determine what could be improved in the new locations. For example, some residents complained that their drinking water, while plentiful, was of poor quality, and that tents and crowded conditions have left them vulnerable to security concerns and fires. In addition, “Some people living in Corail Cesselesse, a resettlement camp on the outskirts of Port au Prince, felt like they were too far removed from the city and thus they weren’t able to get transportation to their jobs or send their kids to school,” Lemon said.
The construction of the transitional shelters (or t-shelters) themselves ideally would minimize the use of poured concrete, use bolts rather than nails and use building materials such as wood and plywood that will degrade naturally. Homes would have locks for security, and some could include an area for a small garden and offer electricity to provide light, Lemon said. The resettlement sites should incorporate proper waste management systems to avoid leaving the land in a degraded state once the resettlement area is decommissioned.
The demand for t-shelters is high, and many people currently living in tents had been told soon after the earthquake that it would be a matter of only months before more permanent structures would be completed. Along with the need to assess potential long-term sites, Lemon said, the need to remove debris has contributed to the delay, as has continued poor weather conditions during the current hurricane season.
Nigel Fisher, a deputy special representative of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, said July 12 that 5,000 t-shelters had been built, with 100,000 more expected to be completed by August 2011. Along with the construction of the new facilities, the United Nations is assessing homes for reconstruction or repair, Fisher said. So far, 125,000 had been found to be structurally safe; he estimated that 100,000 people had been able to return home. Fisher also said the U.N. is discussing with Haitian officials the issue of customs charges that have led to delays in getting building materials into the country.
Lemon said it is difficult to come to terms with the level of need among the displaced Haitians or know when their lives will be able to return to normal.
“It just seems like it’s such an overwhelming job and that it’s going to take so long,” she said. But some of the NGOs were on the ground even before the earthquake and they are “definitely committed for the long term,” she said.
Although her own stay in the country was limited to six weeks, Lemon said she hopes that her research can be used not only to improve living conditions in Haiti, but also to provide guidance to improve future resettlement operations elsewhere.
Along with the need for proper planning, “I think the idea is to sort of help speed up the process because time is definitely of the essence,” she said.