UN official warns of complexity of Haitian relief operations

25 January 2010
WFP deliveries of rice, beans, oil and sugar mean that caregivers can feed surviving orphans

The head of the United Nations agency tasked with providing life-saving food supplies to victims of the catastrophic earthquake which struck Haiti underscored today the size and complexity of the challenge posed by the disaster to UN relief operations.

“The World Food Programme (WFP) has been on the front lines of probably every major disaster… for the past more than 40 years,” WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran told reporters in New York.

“It is the assessment of our logistic and operational experts that this is one of the most complex – if not the most complex – that we’ve ever faced,” said Ms. Sheeran after returning from a two-day visit to Haiti.

Officials believe that more than 100,000 people have been killed and an estimated 3 million people severely affected by the 7.0-magnitude earthquake, which devastated the Caribbean country on 12 January.

Characterizing the situation as “quite grim,” Ms. Sheeran said that WFP is hoping to soon feed some 2 million people each day, but “people will need more food for a longer period of time than we originally expected.

“The supply chain of food getting in is a nightmare,” stressed Ms. Sheeran. “Haiti’s infrastructure was not that strong to start with, but what they had, in many cases, is completely obliterated and broken down.”

Ms. Sheeran noted that WFP warehouses in Haiti were almost all destroyed, but the agency has opened five “humanitarian corridors” to ease the access of urgently needed food supplies from outside the country by land, sea and air.

In addition to the difficulties in rebuilding storage and staging facilities, she said that 90 per cent of WFP are homeless, with many of them living on the streets with their families and delivering food during the day.

“It is the only situation we’ve seen where the humanitarian community there, our own staff, are as affected as the population,” said Ms. Sheeran, adding that out of the many stories of heroism the son of one her key staff members was killed in the tremor, “he lost everything. He dealt with that and within 24 hours was delivering food.”

Despite the grave difficulties facing WFP, including the collapse of communication and road systems, the agency has delivered 8 million meals – both in Port-au-Prince and outside the capital.

“We have helicopters now in place that can do sling drops, mainly outside of the city. We had 70 trucks, we have added 75 trucks for operations over land bringing food in, and we have contracted for 36,000 metric tons of warehouse space.”

She said that in addition WFP is establishing regular secure corridors for delivering food into Port-au-Prince – where there are an estimated 1 million homeless people – to fixed points of distribution that will benefit the overall relief operation.

Ms. Sheeran also appealed for ready-to-use foods as cooking facilities in the affected areas have been completely destroyed, preventing access to fuel, apparatus and water for cooking. She noted that WFP is producing high-energy biscuits in El Salvador to bring into Haiti, as well as 400 tons of fortified peanut paste for Haitian children.

“And we are calling upon all of the world’s militaries to give us any spare meals ready to eat that they have for their own troops.”

Meanwhile, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes told delegates attending the Ministerial Conference on Haiti in Montreal that health care, food, water and shelter continue to be the top priorities for survivors of the earthquake.

“The relief effort is beginning to get there, but we still have a huge distance to go, and this operation will need to continue long after the television crews have gone home and the troops have returned to their normal duties,” said Mr. Holmes, who is also the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs.

Noting that the $575 million UN flash appeal for Haiti launched on 15 January – three days after the quake – is only 48 per cent funded, Mr. Holmes underlined the need to ensure that the relief effort lays the right basis for the wider reconstruction and redevelopment effort.


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