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Resurrecting razed Haiti from the dust

A woman earthquake survivor holds her grandchildren in Leogane, Haiti

By Matthew Price
BBC News, Port-au-Prince

Haiti is already fighting one battle against Mother Nature. Now it is facing another.

In just a few weeks, by the end of March, or in April, the rainy season will begin.

Some 700,000 people are living out in the open, in makeshift shelters.

The luckier have found old and rusty corrugated iron roofs. Others huddle under bed-sheets strung between wooden poles.

Shelter is, according to aid agencies, a monumental challenge.

This week there was a taste of what to expect.

At 5am, as children, mothers and fathers slept for their 29th night under the stars, the heavens opened.

Overwhelming stench

A flood of water came, running down the roads and the camps, dripping through the cardboard and bed-sheets that have until now given some shelter.

By mid-morning the sun had dried everything off, but when the rains come and fall for hours and weeks on end, the capital Port-au-Prince will be turned into a giant mud bath.

The problems encountered at a food distribution point in Port-au-Prince

Finding a solution is a huge undertaking, and the logistical problems are immense.

Haiti doesn't simply need to be re-built.

It needs to be built from scratch.

Aid agencies on the ground admit it's hard to know where to begin.

When the Asian tsunami struck, the recovery effort was helped by the fact that the homeless were spread out.

In Port-au-Prince they are largely crammed and concentrated into a finite urban area. There is little room to build new dwellings.

Port-au-Prince is a city of smells - none of them particularly pleasant.

Down by the river the stench is overwhelming. It claws at the back of the throat, reaches deep into the nostrils.

A month ago it was the scent of decaying bodies that lingered in this city.

Fraught future

Now it is the smell of human excrement.

Red Cross vaccination centre
The Red Cross has started a massive vaccination programme

A pig wallows, its snout in the water, looking for scraps.

Children and adults walk past, some barefoot, treading in the human waste that litters the riverbank.

The river is a huge public toilet. Beside it sit the makeshift shacks and shelters that now house the homeless - and which are turning this city into one sprawling slum.

The American official appointed by President Barack Obama to oversee the humanitarian mission here, Ambassador Lewis Lucke, says the immediate problems have been dealt with.

"There is no food crisis, no water crisis," he said.

He says medical help has arrived in large quantities.

This is a good start, but no-one is under any illusions here. The way forward for this fragile country is fraught and dangerous.

Under the searing tropical sun a mother holds her child firmly. He lets out a piercing scream.

A needle is pushed into his arm: a vaccine against measles.

It's estimated that four out of five children here are susceptible to the disease.

What next?

The Red Cross has started a massive vaccination programme, under the direction of the Haitian Ministry of Health.

"Hundreds of thousands are living in dire conditions. There's an increasing risk of communicable disease," one doctor says.

US Ambassador Lewis Lucke
So much of the china is literally broken in this country there is a chance to put it back in we hope a better way
US Ambassador Lewis Lucke

The buildings that were destroyed when the earth shook were clumsy structures - but they had basic sanitation, toilets and sinks, drainage.

The slums that are replacing them have nothing. Their dirt alleys are narrow and crowded.

One month on there is a key question.

Now that the emergency is over, now that the survivors have been pulled from the rubble, now that most of the injured are getting the treatment they need, now that food and water are getting in through the port: what next?

It is a huge and pressing issue.

For decades Haiti has been dependent on outside help and money.

An estimated 60% of its government budget comes from foreign aid.

Most individuals here survive thanks to the money sent to them by relatives living overseas.

It would be relatively easy, given the money raised, to re-build the presidential palace, the government ministries, La Grande Rue - the commercial heart of Haiti - its Wall Street, if you like.

These are all important things to accomplish. They will be the foundations of the new Haiti.

How though to create a new city, and country, which in the longer term can support itself?

As US Ambassador Lucke put it: "So much of the china is literally broken in this country that there is a chance to put it back in a different way and we hope in a better way."

Only though with a sustained, years-long commitment from the international community will that happen.

And without it, Haiti will simply be another disaster waiting to happen.



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