Monday, September 15, 2008

Deadly Storms A Big Setback For Impoverished Haiti

By Matthew Bigg

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (Reuters): The sight of the Haitian port city of Gonaives sitting in a slick of polluted water is only the most visible symbol of the damage done to the Caribbean nation of 9 million by four consecutive storms this summer.

The severe flooding is a major setback for a poor country struggling to pull itself out of a downward spiral. In addition to killing hundreds of people, the storms hurt agriculture production, particularly of the staple crop, rice, and damaged infrastructure throughout Haiti.

Bridges between Gonaives and the capital collapsed, cutting roads crucial to the delivery of aid. Relief workers described severe damage to roads in the southeast of the country with mudslides, landslides and the formation of new rivers.

The disaster threatens efforts by President Rene Preval to reform a country struggling with a global increase in oil prices, which hiked production costs and led to a dramatic rise in food prices, triggering riots in April that brought down the government.

The storms only made more daunting the challenge facing the new government of Prime Minister Michele Pierre-Louis.

"I think it is immense. That's an understatement. No word can fully gauge the impact of the storms in the short, medium and long term," said Matt Merrick head of programs for the American Red Cross in Haiti.

"Haiti was on a path over the last few years of improving security, infrastructure, job creation and politics and the situation had ameliorated. Now these storms are not two steps back, it's many more than that," Merrick said.

Haiti's floods have provoked a debate about the extent of government responsibility for the natural disaster and what it can do.

"The crisis that we face (over flooding) is a result of the management of the country (by successive governments) as if it was a personal plantation," said Rudolph Boulos, a senator in Haiti's National Assembly. "Everything is extracted from the country as though it was a boutique."

Haiti, which shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic, is denuded of forest because of logging and the burning by villagers of wood and charcoal for fuel.

Only 2 percent of the country's tree cover remains, leaving it prone to flooding and landslides, but Haiti has yet to implement a national reforestation plan.

Flood barriers and better drainage also could have mitigated the impact of the storms. Millions of dollars were set aside for that purpose after Tropical Storm Jeanne killed 3,000 Haitians in 2004, said James Morrell, executive director of the Washington-based Haiti Democracy Project.

The plans were never implemented, in part because the World Bank said any levees it funded would be of little use without a parallel effort by the government, Morrell said.

In 2004 the United Nations set up a 7,000-strong peacekeeping mission led by Brazilian troops and the United States, France and Canada have provided a spearhead for efforts to bring relief and development.

The attempt is part of a larger bid to end decades of mismanagement under dictators and colonial rulers that has made Haiti the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

The UN force has helped stabilize the country by reducing crime and it oversaw elections in 2006 that brought Preval to power but the international community has since been too deferential to the president, Morrell said.

"Everyone likes to say, 'We know the government is weak,' but with the kind of resources that the UN and the US is putting in, much more should have been done," he said. "If they don't do the hard things to deal with the ineffectiveness of government, the next time it rains hard the same thing will happen again."

Since the floods, dozens of aid agencies have rushed to Haiti to provide short-term relief. Beyond that, it is unlikely enough will be done to fix the inherent weaknesses that make Gonaives and other parts of the country prone to flooding -- much less overcome the wider challenges the storms have exposed, analysts said.

"If Preval had a relatively strong government he would move in and rebuild Gonaives on higher ground," said Robert Rotberg, a professor of public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "It is not going to happen because there isn't the quality of leadership or the legitimacy of the government."

Source: CNN - Reuters

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