Skip to main content

Haiti: Earthquake

Volume 716: debated on Tuesday 19 January 2010


My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for International Development (Douglas Alexander) has made the following Statement.

An earthquake of magnitude 7.0 struck Haiti, near the capital Port-au-Prince at 16:53 local time on the 12 January. Numerous significant aftershocks followed the initial quake. This is a major international humanitarian disaster and a tragedy for the people of Haiti. In Port-au-Prince, the tremors destroyed more than 20 per cent of buildings. At the epicentre 10 miles away, 80 to 90 per cent of buildings were damaged. It is clear that the scale of the human tragedy is enormous. UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, said that the Haitian emergency was the most serious humanitarian crisis faced by the United Nations in decades, surpassing those caused by the Asian tsunami, the recent Pakistan earthquake and cyclone Nargis in Burma.

The Haitian Interior Minister has estimated that the death toll could reach 200,000 with many more injured and an estimated 3 million people affected. The United Nations estimates that at least 2 million of these people will require immediate relief assistance for the next six months. So far, we know of one British citizen who has lost his life in the earthquake, Frederick Wooldridge, who worked for the UN Mission in Haiti. We pay tribute to the important work of Mr Wooldridge and others like him in the UN Stabilisation Mission, working for the security and stability of Haiti. We have received reports that other British nationals are missing but do not have any further information to give at this stage.

The Department for International Development’s response began within an hour of the earthquake and we had an assessment team in the air within 10 hours. Relief agencies are having to overcome enormous challenges to get help into the affected areas and we share their frustration and the urgency of meeting desperate needs. Damage sustained by the main airport in Port-au-Prince, together with air traffic control restrictions, meant that getting into Haiti was difficult. The British Government’s own search and rescue team of 64 people were in the neighbouring Dominican Republic in the early hours of the morning of Thursday 14 January. The first UK search and rescue team was established in Port-au-Prince on 14 January and since then has been searching for trapped people. They have so far rescued three people live from the debris and helped treat many more. I would like to pay particular tribute to the professionalism and dedication of our team in Haiti, made up of members of the UK Fire and Rescue Service as well as volunteer medical staff, and DfID staff.

DfID announced an initial contribution of £6.2 million on 14 January. These funds are already providing immediate relief in the form of the 64 person UK search and rescue team,; £1 million to help the UN’s humanitarian agency provide 30 or more staff to help with co-ordination; £2 million for the World Food Programme for logistical support, including trucks and other vehicles, and humanitarian base camps, to get assistance to those in need in Port-au-Prince and remote areas; £1 million for the Red Cross to support urgent medical care; and £300,000 to the World Health Organisation for disease surveillance work.

DfID announced a tripling of funding to £20 million on 18 January and we will make further funding decisions based on the ongoing assessment of needs and discussion with the United Nations and Government of Haiti. We have agreed to help the Red Cross fly supplies from Panama into Haiti over the coming days. We are considering options for how the UK could deliver further relief supplies to Haiti.

A shortage of trucks and fuel, exacerbated by the airport’s limited capacity to receive, warehouse, and dispatch relief supplies, continues to hamper relief efforts in and around Port-au-Prince, although road access from the Dominican Republic is possible and the port at Cap Haitian in the north of Haiti is operating. Getting food in through shattered infrastructure is an enormous problem. This is why we have made an early contribution to the World Food Programme for logistical support.

Needs are huge with food shortages in many areas. But food distribution is accelerating, with the World Food Programme distributing emergency rations to over 70,000 people yesterday (Monday), up from 20,000 on Friday. Large numbers of doctors and other health staff are arriving. There are at least nine field hospitals operational in Haiti as well as a 1,000-bed hospital ship. DfID has provided £200,000 funding for a specialised surgical team from Merlin to operate for the next two weeks in Haiti. The team of 11 medical staff should be on the ground in Haiti later today.

International co-ordination in such disasters rests with the United Nations. However, given the extensive damage to UN headquarters and their loss of staff, they are struggling to meet demands, and the US is bringing vital resources to bear. Our £1 million funding allocation to OCHA is being used to bolster capacity and we have sent a humanitarian adviser to support United Nations operations. The British Government are willing to support further secondments and have offered staff to the World Food Programme. We are also looking at whether practical assistance can be given to the Government of Haiti.

Together with the United Nations, we are working with the US humanitarian teams and military. We have an adviser working in the USAID Operations Room in Washington liaising with American counterparts. The EU humanitarian working group met to discuss the situation in Haiti on Friday, and PUSS Foster attended the EU Foreign Affairs Council meeting yesterday to discuss the immediate humanitarian response and also longer term recovery and reconstruction. We will support that process and press for strong EU co-ordination and commitment to Haiti.

We are following the security situation very closely, both for our teams and for the wider operation. Ban-Ki- Moon yesterday called for an additional 2,000 troops and 1,500 police for the peacekeeping mission. We hope that the UN Security Council will approve this and that these personnel will be mobilised as a matter of urgency.

The challenges that lie ahead are formidable. Access to food, water, shelter and medicines are the immediate concern for the people of Haiti and those involved in the disaster response. Haitians will also need law and order, electricity, and a return to something approximating normality if people are to begin the grieving process and start to rebuild their lives. We did not have a bilateral development programme with Haiti before the earthquake, and our focus will be on ensuring a substantial effort from the EU, World Bank and other multilaterals to provide the long-term reconstruction support that Haiti will need.