La plage de Port-Salut

Six months after hurricane Matthew changed the life of 1.1 million children in Haiti

Haiti, Les Cayes, April 26th, 2017 – On 4th of October 2016 a hurricane of category 4, Matthew, hit Haiti. Ever since, children in the most-affected departments of Grand’Anse and South have seen more pain and destruction than anyone should live through. Many of them have witnessed the destruction of their homes and schools; as their families lost their livelihood hunger and disease have become regular guests in their lives. And yet, throughout there was a fine line of light. The courage of their parents and those who were present to support them.

UNICEF PORT SALUT Wilson and Bradley with their future garden;

Wilson and Bradley with their future garden

Under the leadership of the Haitian government, UNICEF and its partners have been working from the onset of the disaster, rushing against the clock to provide families with clean water, and, little by little, access to education, health care and protection. Hurricane Matthew left 2.7 million people in need of assistance – about as much as the entire population of Jamaica![1] A gigantic task. Donors from all across the world have been fast and generous in supporting the response. Yet in the light of massive needs and a panoply of crises all over the globe – think Syria, South Soudan, Yemen and so many others, funding soon started to decline.

At the beginning of April, six months after Matthew’s passage, I returned to some of the hardest hit locations. Hope and sadness, anger and curiosity mark my mind, seeing and hearing what has (not) changed.

Every child should be able to find enough food, be protected and many other things

Matthew destroyed gardens and livestock of thousands and thousands of families. As the real effects of the declared 70-90 per cent loss of crops are beginning to be felt, malnutrition rates are expected to increase in the coming months. Since Matthew hit Haiti 80,000 children have been screened for malnutrition in the South and Grand’Anse departments, and for those who were diagnosed as malnourished, therapeutic feeding was provided through UNICEF-supported outpatient treatment centres. “Every child should be able to find enough food, be protected and many other things,” says Rosemène, 17, living in Léon, a community hard hit by Matthew in Grand’Anse. “But that is not the case.”

In an emergency setting children are even more vulnerable to disease than under normal conditions. To protect them UNICEF supported large-scale vaccination campaigns against cholera, measles and rubella – the most common and deadly diseases. Mobile medical clinics provided over 80,000 consultations in areas where facilities were too damaged to provide services to the community, as well as in remote difficult to reach locations. Yet now the immediate emergency is over and these clinics have stopped; families depend again on the local health centres, which charge money for medicine and care; money that many don’t have. Increasing the challenge for UNICEF, the departmental cold chain where previously all vaccines for the two departments were stored, has been damaged during the hurricane and is yet to be replaced.

Palmtrees destroyed by Matthew

Palmtrees destroyed by Matthew

According to a survey by the NGO Acted for Les Cayes, 60 per cent of people in the affected areas still draw their drinking water from wells and 35 per cent from private taps. In the aftermath of a disaster clean water is crucial to prevent epidemics, including cholera. Since the hurricane, UNICEF and its partners ensured daily access to safe water for over 400,000 individuals. With improvements to the overall situation, the number of water tanks and bladders has been reduced and efforts focus now on remote areas that continue to suffer from limited access to safe water. “We need help in all areas,” said Chansina, 14, who lives in Roseaux, Grand’Anse department.

Since the hurricane, UNICEF has increased the number of rapid cholera response teams from 46 to 88 nationally. According to the Ministry of Public Health and Population (MSPP), in the 10 weeks since the 1st of January 2017, around 3,585 suspected cases of cholera were reported, compared with more than 9,400 for the same period in 2016, which indicates significant progress towards the goal of cholera elimination in Haiti.  Yet while the number of suspected cholera cases from the South and Grand’Anse diminished from 49 percent in October 2016, to four percent in March 2017, the risk posed by the epidemic remains intact. To eliminate it, UNICEF and its partners combine an increase in rapid-response teams, with epidemiological surveillance, and targeted vaccination in high risk areas.

When we try to talk, adults ask us to be silent because we are children

An estimated 490,000 children have had their school activities interrupted due to the impact of the hurricane. Together with partners, UNICEF was able to facilitate the rehabilitation of 75 schools, allowing more than 20,000 schoolchildren to resume school activities; the rehabilitation of 34 other schools is underway and another 65 is planned. Hundreds of classrooms were equipped with desks and blackboards. Yet – today out of the 150,000 children targeted by the education sector, over 100,000 remain without a chance to learn. “I would have really liked to help people in my community, to bring them what they need, but I cannot. Children need education,” says Isma, 17, a native of Marfranc, Grand’Anse department.

The circumstances created by Matthew increased the risk of violence, exploitation and abuse for an estimated 125,000 children. Today and despite ongoing progress, over 7,000 people still live in temporary housing. “When we try to talk, adults ask us to be silent because we are children,” says Rodley, 12 years old, a native of Jeremie, Grand’Anse department. 6,000 unaccompanied and separated children have been assisted through provisional care and support for family reunification; whereas 4,600 parents had access to social work interventions to prevent family separation. Close to 9,000 children accessed recreational and psychosocial support activities in child friendly spaces. Lacking means and perspectives families often chose to send their children to better-off relatives or even strangers to work as domestics, hoping to offer them the chance to make a living and go to school. Already before the hurricane, poverty and lack of basic social services pushed many families to go this way (– it is estimated that in Haiti one in five children doesn’t live with his biological parents) and the hurricane has worsened the dire scenario…

People living in Coteaux near the beach

A neighbourhood in Coteaux

There is visible change for the better, but so many challenges remain. Close to 700,000 children, women and men benefitted from at least one of UNICEF’s interventions over the past six months. This is a result that one could feel if not proud but satisfied about; yet at the backdrop of immense and continued needs these figures seem small.

Families who had been surviving before Matthew on ~U$2 dollars a day, buying and selling little commodities or working their lands, now scrap by with the help of friends and relatives, from hand to mouth, from day to day.

I never stopped working, but I had hoped to achieve so much more, so that my son has a better life. I wanted him to become a doctor;” tells me Nelsi Kechni, 26 years, who is living with his wife Luma, 24 years in Arniquet, about 20 minutes’ drive from Les Cayes. His son was born one month after Matthew blew away their home. They found refuge in the house of a neighbour. Still living there today, they share a roof with 20 other people who also lost everything. Surviving on farming and driving taxi, everyone contributes and if food is on the table everyone eats. In Port Salut I talk to Wildel Pierre, 65 years. After his home was destroyed by the hurricane he and his four children and four grandchildren found refuge in the neighbourhood. His farmland being destroyed and his animals killed, they survive today on the charity of friends and a local politician. “It’s all over now.” He says sadly. His sons, Wilson and Bradley, respectively 5 and 6 years old, still have the hope of play. Between the rubble of their home they have started to plant. “I want a big garden with lots of trees.” Bradley explains.

Stories like those of Wildel and Nelsi, of Wilson and Bradley are some of many, like grains of sand on the stunning coast that provides a setting of absurd beauty to everyday suffering. They illustrate the crucial need of long-term commitment to development. What is needed now is an investment in infrastructure and agriculture, accompanied by sustainable access to social services. Making this happen requires the commitment of one and all. It is an opportunity and a responsibility that only the Haitian Government, in partnership with Haitian families can tackle. Still every one of us can play a role in contributing to make this happen.

Cornelia Walther

Chief of Communication UNICEF Haiti

[1] 2.81 Million – Source : http://www.worldometers.info/world-populatioan/population-by-country/

This post is also available in: French