GONAÏVES, Haiti — More than 150,000 people are surviving on donated food in the flood-battered city of Gonaïves, and the United Nations says more aid is urgently needed to stave off famine in parts of Haiti four months after ravaging storms.
Families are repairing mud-caked homes and markets have reopened, but the storms endangered a country already struggling with chronic malnutrition.
“What we are going to do now, from January onward, is to support the vulnerable people, to support the children so they keep growing healthy,” U.N. World Food Program (WFP) country director Myrta Kaulard said last Thursday during a tour of affected areas.
The WFP is asking countries to donate $100 million for Haiti, saying the organization’s current funding will last only through February. It requested the same last year, but received only $68 million.
U.N.- and U.S.-sponsored groups say that half of Gonaïves’ population can now feed themselves. To encourage local markets and tackle chronic hunger, they are scaling back public food distributions that had sustained nearly the entire city of 300,000 for months.
They are shifting instead to a more sustainable approach targeting those most at risk, such as children and pregnant women. Food is distributed through school lunch programs, neighborhood canteens and programs rewarding work on streets, sewers and anti-erosion projects.
More than 2,000 residents are being paid with food and cash to dig flood-control trenches in the mountains above Gonaïves. Engineers said that with current resources, it will take 15 years to build enough to save the city from the next killer storm.
This week, women with small children waited alongside an open sewer to enter a canteen run by the French food aid group Action Against Hunger. Only children shorter than 3-foot-7 with registration cards could enter, get a check-up and receive a porridge-like mix of corn, soy, salt and sugar.
“The problem now is that the kids are being fed, but the parents aren’t eating,” said Jean-Noel Mouna, 24, who was accompanying the child of a neighbor who had to work.
The storms worsened Haiti’s chronic hunger, and aid groups say isolated famines could result without continued help. Decades of political chaos and poverty have left one in four Haitian chronically malnourished. A doubling of food prices last year sparked riots that toppled the prime minister.
“Even before the disaster it was already a disaster in terms of food security,” said WFP Haiti program officer Raphael Chuinard.
The WFP is scouting locations for a Gonaïves food warehouse and coordinating with U.N. peacekeepers to keep temporary bridges and road-crossing equipment on hand, to prevent the kind of aid delays that proved so deadly in September.
Meanwhile, finding any food at all remains a challenge for the extremely poor.
Jesline Dumas, 22, grew up malnourished and last week held her quivering 8-month-old, Hilarie Fenelus — 23 inches and just 8 pounds after nine days of food treatment in a Gonaïves hospital.
“Now it is more difficult than ever. Everything is too expensive,” Dumas said.
Four tropical storms and hurricanes battered the impoverished Caribbean nation during last year’s harvest season, killing 793 people nationwide, decimating agriculture and causing $1 billion in damage to irrigation, bridges and roads.
By October, food shortages around the isolated southeastern village of Baie d’Orange had contributed to 26 child deaths. Last Thursday, mothers from surrounding villages walked for hours, carrying emaciated children with open sores from fungal infections, to reach a village clinic run by WFP and Save the Children.
“We could have a famine here in Baie d’Orange,” nurse Peguy Duraisin said. “There are children whose bodies are completely destroyed.”