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Monday, 8 February 2010
Page: 783

Mr KELVIN THOMSON (7:35 PM) —I welcome and commend the motion of sympathy moved by my colleague the member for Fremantle regarding the devastating earthquake in Haiti and the further expression of condolence for the significant loss of life of staff from the United Nations itself. The United Nations, along with aid agencies, are undertaking critical work in providing support for the Haitian people, while the Australian government has contributed significant funding both for emergency relief and for reconstruction.

The Haitian health minister, Alex Larsen, has emphasised the dire situation of homelessness in the aftermath of the quake that could be well be exacerbated this month when heavy rains are due. This could trigger a public health disaster unless quake refugees are given adequate shelter. The United Nations have warned that, if heavy rains arrive—perhaps as early as mid-February—while as many as a million Haitians are still homeless, it could provoke a public health catastrophe, spreading disease through dense, insanitary, makeshift encampments.

An estimated 500,000 people are living in nearly 500 makeshift tent cities, often in shelters made from whatever they can salvage, and in terrible conditions. An initial EU assessment found that more than 4,000 physical structures were destroyed or damaged in the capital, Port-au-Prince. The Haitian health minister said it was necessary to ensure better sanitation in the camps to prevent the emergence of communicable diseases, saying such a development was ‘the biggest concern for the government of Haiti’. ‘I believe the biggest problem right now is people sleeping in the street,’ Mr Larsen said.

With so many homeless people, aid groups have been unable to get enough tents to all of them. This is an immediate concern, as the lack of tents leave people vulnerable to the elements. Many fear that they could still be without shelter during the upcoming rainy season. Haiti’s president, Rene Preval, called on foreign donors in late January to send 200,000 tents to house families left homeless before rainfall scuttles relief plans. Both Haitian and international officials are also concerned that the camps that do exist may become permanent if a long-term solution to homelessness is not found. Discussions are in train for contracting private companies to build apartment complexes and homes to accommodate residents currently living in tents, as part of a greater reconstruction effort.

It is essential that Haiti is given an opportunity to rebuild anew in ways that allow this impoverished nation, which has experienced enormous hardship, both politically and from natural disasters, to have a brighter future. The international community has a critical role to play in ensuring that Haiti does not descend into despair, and addressing homelessness and economic disadvantage is an important place to start.

I concur with Oxfam’s five priorities for Haitian reconstruction, which include cancellation of Haiti’s outstanding US$890 million international debt; support for Haitian farmers and small business; ensuring poor areas benefit from cash grants to speed economic recovery; support for civil society and the Haitian government; and building earthquake-proof buildings and using alternative fuel sources to reduce deforestation. I also believe, as Oxfam has indicated, that donors, the UN and the Haitian government must work together to ensure that poorer areas that were amongst the hardest hit by the earthquake benefit fully from reconstruction efforts. I think it is important that donors heed the warning of Oxfam Australia’s Policy Director, John Ensor, that:

Haiti is a divided and highly unequal society so there is a real risk that ... politically influential and richer Haitians will secure reconstruction resources at the expense of Port-au-Prince’s poorest.

I wish to add two further points which are of significance in looking beyond this immediate tragedy and the relief effort. The first is that rapid global population growth is giving rise to massive urbanised slums which are highly vulnerable to disasters of all kinds: natural disasters, climate disasters and political conflict. A billion people, one-sixth of the world’s population, live in slums. The slums of Latin America, Africa and Asia are places of insecurity and violence. If we do not try to stabilise the world’s population, the scale, human tragedy and misery of disasters like that in Haiti will inevitably continue to rise.

Secondly, I believe Australia needs to lift its overseas aid. I am pleased at the steps the Australian government is taking to lift our contribution to 0.5 per cent of gross national income, but I would like to see us go further and meet the United Nations target of 0.7 per cent of gross national income. We cannot look upon the faces of those innocent men, women and children in Haiti and see such suffering and hardship and not want to open our hearts and do all that we can to help them.