January 27, 2010

Searching for Survival in Port-au-Prince

Port-au-Prince was a city plagued by poverty before the earthquake. Now, poverty has turned into a search for survival for the majority of the population. People's houses have been destroyed, so they are sleeping in tents anywhere they can find a place. People's places of employment are no longer functional, so they have no money to buy food. There is food in Port-au-Prince - both from relief efforts and in stores. However, there is not an efficient distribution system in effect, thus people must be creative or lucky to find food.

As we drove around Port-au-Prince on Monday, we saw plenty of evidence of people looking for food. At several junctions, we saw people crowded outside of places where aid was being distributed. We met several pastors outside one of the UN military bases who were soliciting food for their congregation. They complained to us about the lack of food and the poor nutritional quality of the food available – mostly white rice and sardines.

We also saw many people looking for water. There were long lines at places where water was available. We saw people walking around with buckets and jugs looking for water to fill them. I even saw a man cup his hands and drink from a puddle on the ground.

There are tent cities all over the place in Port-au-Prince. These makeshift housing settlements lack all of the basic amenities. There is no running water to wash dishes or clothes or oneself. Most have no sanitation services, so people have nowhere to use the bathroom. This in itself could lead to a major public health problem and there does not seem to be an immediate solution available to prevent that.

A lot of food has been pouring into Haiti from abroad, but it has not been reaching everyone who needs it. One of the major problems seems to be the distribution efforts. In the newspapers, I have read that there are security concerns with regard to food distribution. On Tuesday, I saw people from the World Food Organization delivering food to an orphanage. They were accompanied by armed guards.

The only guns I have seen in Port-au-Prince, in fact, are those that belong to people in uniforms. The city is crawling with US soldiers and UN soldiers, and there are a few Haitian police officers with guns. Although people surely are desperate for food, I have not seen much evidence of attacks or violent robberies. Instead, I have seen lines of people waiting for food and water, and people using their creativity to look for food anywhere they can find it.

I have heard time and time again that there is plenty of food and water in Port-au-Prince, but that it is not reaching the people it needs to reach. The distribution effort is too slow and not systematic enough.

There are markets and supermarkets, but so many people are out of work that they do not have money to buy food. There are also restaurants open and roadside stands that sell food. Again, this food is only available to people who have money to pay for it. There are private companies that sell water that can fill up your buckets or tanks with just a phone call. In Port-au-Prince, you can survive if you have the money to do so. If not, you are forced to search for food and water and hope that you are lucky enough to be close by when the distribution effort begins.

Access to cash is a big problem in Port-au-Prince. There are long lines outside of all the working money transfer facilities. Banks have no outside lines, so cannot receive any foreign wire transfers. The only people with access to cash are those who have money saved in the bank. And, they have only had access since Saturday, as the banks were closed until then.

Many of the people in Port-au-Prince are out of work, and spend their days searching for food and water and somewhere to use the bathroom. At the same time, there is a lack of resources to distribute the food. It seems to me that there must be some way to put people to work distributing food. However, I have not seen any efforts to put Haitians to work in food and water distribution. Instead, Haitians walk around all day hoping they will be lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time – when one of the many aid organizations are distributing aid.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting this on-the-ground report. ka