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Natural disasters

Gonaives: Preparing for the next big storm

Come hurricane season, the citizens of Gonaives in northern Haiti brace for the worse. Five years ago, Hurricane Jeanne ripped through its shores sending walls of water and mud down the surrounding slopes and changing the face of the city forever. A project managed by the International Labour Organization (ILO) has been helping local residents organize themselves to build erosion control networks to protect the city from mudslides and heavy run-off. But as ILO Online reports, the challenge does not stop at the hillsides.

Artículo | 26 de agosto de 2009

Gonaives, Haiti (ILO Online) – When Hurricane Jeanne landed in Haiti in September 2004, it found in the northern coastal city of Gonaives the perfect setting for a catastrophe. Lying below sea level and with its barren hillsides offering no natural protection against heavy rains and mudslides, the city was quickly turned into a swamp. More than 3,000 people died; thousands of others were left homeless.

Following Hurricane Jeanne, every major storm has been a cause for concern for the people of Gonaives. However, they have not remained idle. Since 2006, local residents have been restoring and improving the watershed around the city in a project managed by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and in cooperation with the Haitian Ministry of Planning and External Cooperation. The project is co-funded by the United Nations Development Programme and the World Food Programme.

In exchange for food and wages, workers carry out a number of tasks, from digging horizontal ditches and reinforcing them with rocks, to assembling stone weirs, small dams and upgrading draining ditches in the flatlands.

But the project goes beyond disaster prevention and mitigation.

“It’s also about rehabilitating the environment, promoting local employment, capacity building and social organization, as well as preserving the livelihoods of future generations by restoring a natural resource base”, said Emmanuel Rubayiza, from the ILO’s Employment Investment Programme.

Environmental degradation has long been a problem in and around Gonaives. While restoring the slopes around the city, workers have also been busy fighting back deforestation through tree nursing and planting, water and soil conservation, and by correcting the slopes and banks of the “Quinte River”, all of which form part of the longer term objective to create jobs.

“Gonaives has become a true example of how green jobs can contribute to restoring environmental quality while providing decent employment”, said Emmanuel Rubayiza. “The project has also helped to increase awareness of environmental issues, which is a key element for sustainable development and the preservation of future livelihoods”.

Just as important as the jobs the project is generating, is the legacy that it is leaving behind. The use of local resource based techniques and community contracting have been a crucial component. Seven professional associations have been created and six federations of local associations assist in recruiting workers, selecting foremen and monitoring and controlling the payment of wages.

When the project comes to an end, the organizational, managerial and technical expertise will remain with the people of Gonaives.

“The contractual approach of the project means that workers, local organisations, local authorities and regional technical departments not only learn about environment protection techniques and maintenance systems, but also about their roles, responsibilities, rights and obligations. That’s what capacity building is all about”, says Emmanuel Rubayiza.

Phase I of the project, which finished in December 2007, achieved interesting results, among them: over 566 kilometres of contours for slope protection were constructed, more than 14,600 m3 of dry masonry walls were erected and some 360,000 worker days – or the equivalent of some 900 people employed daily over a 20 month period – were created.

However, while impressive works have been done and employment created, this was a demonstration phase and much remains to be done. In 2008, Gonaives was again hit by fierce storms, including hurricanes Fay, Gustav, Hanna and Ike. The damage was lower than in 2004, but much of the city is still flooded and signs of devastation are everywhere. Many citizens, especially the young, have been leaving Gonaives in search of a better life in other parts of Haiti or abroad.

The second phase of the project is scheduled to finish at the end of the year. The results, so far, have been encouraging, but they pale against the sheer amount of work that lies ahead. In the words of Emmanuel Rubayiza, “the challenge is to be ready for the next big storm, but most importantly to help the citizens of Gonaives with a large scale investment programme that responds to the huge environmental needs creating much-needed jobs, now accentuated by the economic crisis, and that takes society beyond recovery and on to a path of sustainable development”.