Page last updated at 02:57 GMT, Saturday, 16 January 2010

Haiti earthquake - how do UK charities help?

By Vanessa Barford
BBC News

People in Port-Au-Prince
Aid workers are gradually reaching Port-au-Prince

With up to 50,000 people feared dead in Haiti, UK charities are scrambling to get aid to the earthquake-stricken Caribbean island. But what do agencies do when disaster strikes?

There is no doubt that Haiti's 7.0-magnitude earthquake has been a humanitarian disaster.

Over three million people are thought to have been displaced in the poorest nation in the Americas, and the death toll keeps rising.

Charities have been quick to send supplies and emergency response teams.

The Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) - the umbrella organisation which co-ordinates responses to major disasters overseas - launched an emergency appeal within days.

Britons donated more than £2m in the space of 36 hours.

But how do charities and the DEC assess what to do first when a disaster devastates?

Relief to recovery

Richard North, acting head of logistics for the British Red Cross, said the first line of response was to see if a disaster could be handled on a local level.

"The Haitian Red Cross was overwhelmed, warehouse buildings damaged, there was a clear requirement for international assistance.

"Emergency stocks were distributed pretty much straight away. Then we looked at our emergency response unit, we have teams which are on 24/7 standby, and specialist areas like medicine," he said.

A girl in a displaced persons camp
Oxfam is among the charities sending shelter equipment for Haiti's displaced

In Haiti, easing the gridlock at the airport which has blocking aid getting to the victims was now a priority. The British Red Cross would dispatch a logistics team from the UK to create another entry point to Haiti, he said.

"Port-au-Prince airport is subject to restrictions on fuel and handling equipment, the port is badly damaged, we need some kind of trucking system to transfer goods into Haiti from the [neighbouring] Dominican Republic."

The Red Cross was also mobilising stocks of plastic sheets, tarpaulins, hygiene kits, mosquito nets and buckets from Panama, he said.

Looking further ahead, he said: "Emergency relief typically takes 6-8 weeks, with recovery 2-4 years.

"Normally the response moves from search and rescue and medical needs, to helping those who have lost homes with shelter, to water sanitation and food. Then comes more longer-term recovery programmes, like re-building homes and offering families micro-loans."

'Well versed in disaster'

Oxfam, which had a member of staff killed in the earthquake, said its priority was "always" water and sanitation.

The charity is preparing to send up to 10 tonnes of water, sanitation, health and shelter equipment - valued at around £70,000 - from its Oxford UK warehouse on Saturday afternoon.

Equipment includes emergency sheeting for shelter and latrines, water tubing to create pipes, water purification chemicals and tablets and buckets to enable people to carry and store water.

Haitians walk the streets amid collapsed buildings and rubble in downtown Port-au-Prince
Large parts of the Haitian capital have been devastated

The charity said staff already based in Haiti had been providing shovels to clear rubble and search for trapped victims, and 17 international humanitarian experts had arrived in Haiti on Friday.

Kate Akhtar, senior emergency programme officer for Care International, agreed that water and sanitation were "key".

She said Care was sending 600,000 water purification tablets and it had enough stocks of high protein biscuits to feed 60,000 families.

But she said assessments needed to be "ongoing".

Haiti was "well versed" in disaster, having had four hurricanes in 2008, but was in "urgent need" of more aid, she said.

"Urban areas are always difficult, but there is so much deforestation in Haiti - which has caused landslide problems in the past - that it will be difficult to source items to create shelter."

Communication was also a problem, with text messaging the only way to communicate with their staff, she said.

'Different skills'

ActionAid said aid was "trickling in" but the situation was "chaotic".

It said it had 25 staff in the country, but 20 were "still trying to dig their families out of the rubble".

A team of international staff from ActionAid, including some from the UK and Brazil, were travelling to Haiti and should be in the country by Sunday.

As well as delivering shelter, food and sanitary kits for women, the charity would provide psycho-social support, a spokeswoman said.

Peter Grant, International Director of Tearfund, said the DEC considered three factors when it decided whether to launch an appeal: firstly, the need; secondly, members' capacity to respond; and thirdly, evidence the UK public wanted to help.

He said the disaster in Haiti was "clear cut" because "all lights were green" - whereas in other scenarios, like the droughts in east Africa, it was much harder because "there was little media interest".

He said Tearfund - which works with a range of churches and organisations in 35 countries - was sending a disaster assessment team to Haiti over the weekend with a view to helping in the medium- to long-term, but was already working with partners on the ground.

"By appealing in consortium, the DEC is flexible. Different agencies have different skills, so we work in a complementary way. Some agencies are geared up to send immediate relief - we anticipate a two-year response," he said.

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