Haiti's natural disasters

September 28, 2004

IN THE aftermath of Hurricane Jeanne, the Haitian city of Gonaives is a mainstay of misery. Residents living on rooftops. The dead fouling fetid, flooded streets below. Gangs hijacking convoys of food and water. Police missing in action and international troops overwhelmed in their absence. And yet, the chaos cannot be blamed solely on Jeanne's battering winds and ravaging rains.

The storm that led to more than 1,000 dead and another 1,000 missing compounded the devastation of years of economic, social and environmental neglect. It exposed the wasteland Haiti has become with dictators and demagogues in power. The international community should recognize now what should have been apparent earlier this year -- that the problems of the island nation did not reside simply in the presidency of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti's first democratically-elected leader in its 200-year history.

Consider the following: The denuded countryside exacerbated the flood damage in Gonaives, the third-largest city in Haiti, because the punishing rains rushed down hillsides, creating a tidal wave of mud and water. The consequences of years of deforestation include damaged fields and farmland and impassable roads. Diminished topsoil means a limited ability to grow crops and Haitians can't feed themselves as they might. Washed-out roads mean aid convoys -- humanitarian groups are on the ground there -- can't reach the needy. And everyone is in need -- Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. According to international aid group CARE, half of Haiti's population is malnourished, a percentage greater than that of Angola and Ethiopia.

The government of interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue, in place since political unrest forced Mr. Aristide from power in February, has relied on United Nations forces to help restore civil order and disarm anti- and pro-Aristide gangs. But the U.N. force is half the complement it should be and is now faced with policing a people desperate for the very basics. Although Haiti has received millions in foreign aid -- with the United States, the largest donor, averaging about $60 million in humanitarian aid a year -- Haitians' standard of living hasn't improved accordingly.

That's why Peter D. Bell, president of CARE, talking from Haiti yesterday urged the international community to develop a long-term strategy to deal with Haiti's poverty. Otherwise, he says, Haitians will remain vulnerable to natural disasters. The plight of Haitians recovering from this hurricane illustrates the need for a focus on people's livelihood as well as political leadership.

Because Haiti's history with natural disasters -- 16 hurricane-like storms, 25 floods, 7 droughts and an earthquake in the last 100 years -- is not limited to a once-in-a-hundred-year occurrence.

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