Aid is getting through to parts of Haiti devastated by the 12 January earthquake, but huge humanitarian challenges remain. Many of the disaster's worst effects – including its impact on child health and safety – are aggravated by the country's longstanding impoverishment and instability - write Tim Ledwith and Elizabeth Kiem.
Even before the Haiti quake, "the health system was relatively weak and the immunisation coverage was not optimal," said UNICEF Chief of Maternal, Newborn and Child Health, Renee Van de Weerdt. "The rates of malnutrition were also relatively high," she added. "We know that we have to deal with a very vulnerable population."
In the critical area of water and sanitation, pre-existing conditions in Haiti are also dire.
"It's one of the few countries in the world where sanitation coverage rate has actually declined over the past few years," said UNICEF Chief of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene, Clarissa Brocklehurst. "The number of people who had access to what we would consider improved sanitation was only about 19 per cent. So we're already starting from a low base."
The head of UNICEF's Chief of Gender and Rights Unit, Dan Seymour, noted that the consequences of an earthquake of this magnitude – though serious – probably would have been much less overwhelming in a more developed country.
"So the issue is not an earthquake," he said. "It's the intersection, the interaction, between the earthquake and the situation in Haiti, as a poor country with a very, very limited ability to provide for its children at the best of times."
On Monday in Montreal, Canada, representatives of the Haitian Government and 10 other nations will meet to discuss long-term reconstruction in the stricken country. By addressing the systemic problems which have hindered Haiti's development, the international community and the Haitian people could re-build the country better than it was before – laying the foundation for its children's future.
Today, however, the top priority is still providing immediate relief for children in need.
Since the disaster struck, five plane-loads of UNICEF emergency supplies have arrived in Haiti and the neighbouring Dominican Republic. Several more flights are scheduled in the days ahead, carrying water, sanitation, health and nutrition supplies, as well as tents to shelter the displaced.
There is an urgent need for shelter materials. At present, hundreds of improvised settlements are scattered throughout the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, and hundreds of thousands of the city's residents are homeless. UNICEF tents will also be used to house child-feeding centres and emergency health and immunisation posts.
Safe water is critical. UNICEF is now reaching about 150,000 people with water, and its operations are scaling up daily at hospitals and distribution points around the capital. This assistance is needed to stave off outbreaks of waterborne diseases, which pose particularly deadly risks for young children.
"We've been working with our partners to bring in water tankering, so that we can deliver quantities of safe water to centralised water storage tanks," said Ms Brocklehurst.
The World Food Programme, meanwhile, has provided around 3 million meals to more than 200,000 people in the earthquake zone. UNICEF is responsible for coordinating efforts to ensure proper feeding of infants and young children.
In partnership with local authorities, UNICEF is also supporting Child Protection Brigades to help prevent the trafficking or unauthorised departure of minors. In a related effort, the agency is setting up safe spaces and family-tracing programmes for children who are lost or have been separated from their relatives. UNICEF's goal is to reunite unaccompanied children with their families or with caregivers they know and trust.
These and many other activities are under way to improve the difficult situation on the ground. Haiti had the highest rates of child and maternal mortality in the western hemisphere even before this catastrophe. Its children deserve nothing less than to have their basic needs met as quickly as possible in the current circumstances.
"UNICEF's long-term relationship with Haiti started long before today," said Seymour. "UNICEF will still be there long into the future."
With acknowledgements to UNICEF: http://www.unicef.org/