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AAAS S&T Policy Fellows Aid Haitian Recovery and Reconstruction After January Earthquake
Jay Graham visited Haiti for the first time in late February, as he joined urgent efforts to bring clean water to Port au Prince after the 12 January earthquake. Working intense, 15-hour days, the AAAS S&T Policy Fellow helped provide hand washing stations and other sanitation needs for the burgeoning camps of displaced people.
Like Haiti itself, however, Graham has moved on from recovery to reconstruction. When he returns to the island this week, the AAAS S&T Policy Fellow will help steer the water and hygiene relief efforts toward longer-term investments in the country’s sanitation systems.
Graham and other S&T Fellows have been shuttling to Haiti since shortly after the earthquake as part of a massive effort to rebuild the nation. That effort could expand ambitiously in the months and years ahead: With more than a million people still homeless and threatened by the arrival of the island’s summer rainy season, international donors met at the United Nations on 31 March and pledged an unprecedented $5.3 billion for Haiti’s long-term recovery.
Scientists can play a key role in the reconstruction by “bringing rigor and data” to understanding Haiti’s immediate and future needs, Graham said. “This is disaster response, but it’s also an issue of strategically moving forward, and connecting what’s done in disaster relief with something larger and longer in scope.”
Launched in 1973, the AAAS S&T Policy Fellowships have sent more than 2000 scientists and engineers to work in one-and two-year assignments in Congress and nearly 20 executive branch agencies and departments. The efforts of those working in Haiti “are indicative of the skills that Fellows can offer by applying their knowledge in real-world situations to address challenges and bring about positive change,” said Cynthia Robinson, director of the Fellowships.
Workers clear debris from the collapse of a multistory building in Port-au-Prince.
[Photo: Courtesy of Allegra da Silva]
In the early weeks of recovery, current and former S&T Fellows tallied the urgent needs of Haitians and helped coordinate relief efforts. Now the seasoned scientists and engineers face a much larger challenge in helping Haiti plan long-term investments in infrastructure, sanitation, and agriculture.
Graham had one week to prepare after getting the call from his boss John Borrazzo—a former S&T Fellow—to join a USAID team in February. He found busy streets and markets coming back to life just weeks after the quake—but the environmental health advisor also saw opportunities for new investments that could benefit the entire country.
He’s scheduled return tomorrow (20 April) and again in May. “When I go back, I’ll be doing more interviews and figuring out what the Haitian government would like, where they would like us to invest our resources geographically,” said Graham, a second-year S&T Fellow working with the U.S. Agency for International Development. “I’ll also be talking to people about cultural norms regarding water and hygiene, so we have a good sense of issues that could become roadblocks.”
Adam Reinhart, a 2003-2005 S&T Fellow, was deeply immersed in Haiti’s future before USAID chose him to be part of its reconstruction teams. Last year, the agricultural scientist helped establish USAID’s WINNER program, which will invest $126 million over five years to strengthen Haitian agriculture. He was “surprised and honored” to be part of USAID’s Haiti Reconstruction Team, he said, since this was his first experience with disaster relief.
When he returns to Haiti in May, he and his colleagues will interview Haitian farmers about the quake’s impact on soil erosion and vital roads that rural farmers use to deliver crops to Port au Prince. In addition to the damage around the capital, said Reinhart, “the earthquake has exacerbated existing infrastructure problems countrywide.” Refugees fleeing the capital have placed added strain on the infrastructure of rural areas and smaller cities, he noted.
Scientists have much to offer in Haiti, but they have to conduct research in a way that doesn’t burden the relief effort, said Olga Cabello, a 2007-2009 S&T Fellow who now directs the International Development Seismology initiative at IRIS, a consortium of U.S. universities that supports the global collection and open exchange of seismological data.
The magnitude 7.0 earthquake was a unique chance for scientists to collect critical data, she said, but “if you move in one seismograph, that’s one fewer tent that you move in.”
On 22-23 March, IRIS organized a workshop in Coral Gables, Florida, with federal agencies, the United Nations, and universities to develop “recommendations that can be used to reconstruct the country and the community at every level,” said Cabello.
The conference, which included a delegation of top Haitian government officials and researchers, underscored the importance of gathering scientific and engineering expertise before major rebuilding begins, said Cabello. “You do not want to reconstruct vulnerability—you’re rebuilding for resilience.”
Allegra Da Silva
Allegra Da Silva, a current S&T Fellow with a Ph.D. in environmental engineering, came to Haiti as part of a USAID Rapid Environmental Assessment team. The team interviewed earthquake survivors in Port-au-Prince as well as the Jacmel, Les Cayes, Leogane, Petit Goave, Mirebalais, and Cabaret regions. USAID used the interviews to coordinate efforts with relief groups bringing clean water, garbage collection, and transitional shelters to the survivors.
DaSilva talked with people about everything from “flying latrines”—plastic bags used in lieu of toilets—to their congested tent cities fashioned from wooden poles and bed sheets. “Lives come first,” she said, “but we also want to know how we can expedite the acquisition of these resources with less environmental impact.”
Temporary camps built in Port-au-Prince after the earthquake faced several sanitation challenges, including standing water and mud from local flooding.
[Photo: Courtesy of Allegra da Silva]
Their initial visits to Haiti left the S&T Fellows with vivid impressions of a nation resilient and ready to rebuild after devastation.
“What we don’t see on the news is that 90% of the relief effort is from one neighbor to the other here in Haiti,” da Silva wrote in an e-mail to family and friends while she was in Port au Prince. “People are sharing food, clothes, household items—endlessly and totally selflessly.”
“Everybody is working really long hours there—it was pretty intense,” said Graham. “This work, I do believe in it. You can create the right incentives so people can organize themselves and solve problems if we invest.”
19 April 2010