By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA (AlertNet) - Couples strolling through parks and squares now empty of makeshift tents, crowds enjoying football matches and voodoo and hip hop summer festivals, rubble-free streets.
These were signs of normality that I saw during a trip to Haiti last week, returning to the Caribbean nation two and a half years after a massive earthquake flattened the capital Port-au-Prince.
But as Tropical Storm Isaac tore through Haiti early last Saturday killing at least eight people and washing away food crops in muddy flood waters, the plight of hundreds of thousands of Haitians still living in tent camps is once more in the spotlight.
Around 390,000 Haitians who lost their homes in the earthquake still live in 575 makeshift camps and settlements dotted in and around Port-au-Prince, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a Geneva-based intergovernmental organisation.
Families live crammed together in flimsy tents and shacks made from bed sheets, tarpaulin and scrap metal, providing little protection from torrential rains and the threat of water-borne diseases like cholera.
"Water is stagnating around the camps and in some areas latrines are flooded,” said Jean-Michel Vigreux, country director in Haiti for CARE, a U.S.-based non-governmental organisation.
“In the neighbourhoods water is rushing through poorly constructed drainage, eroding the already precarious hillsides and ravines,” he added.
DODGING THE BULLET
It could have been much worse.
Early warning systems were in place ahead of the first major storm of this year’s hurricane season, allowing thousands of Haitians to evacuate their homes and tents into emergency shelters in time. Camp committees helped to evacuate people and distribute food aid and hygiene kits. Disaster preparation, including text messages sent to Haitians, has improved.
"The camps got lucky this time and dodged the bullet," Luca Dall'Oglio, IOM's chief of mission in Haiti, said in a statement this week. "But they will not always be so lucky and the international community needs to act now to close all the camps by providing rental subsidies and housing solutions for those living there.”
The question being asked, once again, is how many more times must Haitians dodge the bullet?
While the number of Haitians living in camps has decreased by 66 percent from a July 2010 peak of 1.5 million, the pace of people leaving the camps has slowed recently.
Since April, the camp population has fallen by only 7 percent. Some camps have been closed because people have been evicted, sometimes forcibly, by private landowners wanting to reclaim their land.
Families living in camps want to leave but many have nowhere to go. They are often the most desperate – the elderly, the sick and those who can’t get jobs to pay rent or repair their quake-damaged homes.
RESETTLING CAMP DWELLERS
There are schemes being run by the Haitian government, IOM and other international aid agencies to resettle families from tents into safe homes and repaired homes.
For example, IOM is offering families living in tent settlements a one-off payment of $500 - the equivalent of a year’s rent - if they can find a new, safe place to live.
Over the last year, rental subsidies have allowed nearly 19,000 families to leave the camps and closed some 50 camps.
Another scheme run by the charity CARE, is helping camp dwellers move from camps to repaired housing in the poor neighbourhood of Carrefour in Port-au-Prince.
The scheme has repaired more than 300 quake-damaged homes at a cost of around $1,800 each. In return, homeowners are asked to host for a year families of their choice living in the camps.
“I’m happy to be in my home. The camps are bad for you and your children,” Mouira Guillaume, who has benefited from the scheme, told me.
After living in a camp for nearly two years with her three children, her cosy three-room home was recently repaired in 17 days, boasting a new corrugated roof and cement and iron walls built to better withstand earthquakes.
In one of her small rooms lives a lodger who recently moved from a camp.
But her neighbour who lives across the unpaved street, has not been so fortunate. He lives in a house marked with a red cross, meaning it’s unsafe to live in.
“I should be a priority living in a red house. But I’m still waiting for the government to do something for me,” he said in frustration.
Efforts to resettle homeless Haitians in new housing or repaired homes have been hampered by political uncertainty, weak coordination and a cholera epidemic, along with longstanding land tenure problems.
International aid agencies and the Haitian government of Michel Martelly all agree resettling the remaining camp dwellers is a priority.
But few new permanent homes are being built in Port-au-Prince. Moreover, no-one seems to have a defined roadmap outlining how long it will take to close the remaining camps.
LACK OF FUNDS
Getting the funds to resettle camp dwellers is also an obstacle.
"While civil protection and preparedness will continue to be a high priority for Haiti for the foreseeable future, we will fall down on the job as humanitarians if we do not urgently find the necessary resources to close these camps quickly," IOM’s Luca Dall'Oglio said.
Most families living in tent settlements rented before the earthquake. It costs $1,000 to resettle a family from a tent into a rented room for a year, the IOM says.
At that price tag, it would cost the international aid community around $60 million to resettle the remaining camp dwellers.
Of the almost $6 billion in official aid to Haiti that has already been disbursed, that’s not a hefty price to pay for something that would put so many Haitians out of misery and out of harm’s way.
While the international aid community scrambles to get the funds, it’s likely hundreds of thousands of Haitians will be living in camps for months to come, bracing themselves for more storms and flooding as the hurricane season gets underway.