Haiti aid operation still has way to go, U.N. says

GENEVA (Reuters) - The aid operation in Haiti has been complicated and frustratingly slow, but is making significant progress, particularly in getting food to quake survivors, the top U.N. relief official said on Tuesday.

Providing shelter to an estimated 1 million homeless is first priority now that search and rescue efforts have ended and most life-threatening injuries have been treated, John Holmes said.

“We still have a significant way to go before reaching everybody who needs food, and on the shelter side as well,” the U.N.’s emergency relief coordinator told a news briefing.

The 7.0 magnitude quake which struck Haiti on January 12 is estimated to have killed up to 200,000 people. It has led to scenes of chaotic food handouts amid the ruins of the capital Port-au-Prince.

Overall the situation in the devastated capital is calm, apart from “isolated incidents of looting or attacks on convoys of food,” Holmes said.

“This is a potentially volatile environment and we have to make sure it doesn’t degenerate from fights over food into more serious civil unrest,” he said.

The U.N. police and military force in Haiti known as MINUSTAH and the U.S. military are ensuring security at food distribution points and escorting convoys, but the U.S. troops would not stay for more than a few months, he said.

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The World Food Program (WFP), a U.N. agency, aims to have 16 food distribution points across Port-au-Prince and provide 2 million people with two-week rations over the next 10 days, according to Holmes.

“The delays we’ve seen in Haiti are all to do with logistics, the sheer difficulty of making things happen in a context like Haiti,” he said.

Some 7,000 latrines are urgently needed to help prevent the spread of disease in congested, unsanitary conditions.

“Shelter is top priority. We are getting material in and distributing it as fast as we possibly can,” Holmes said.

Some 7,000 tents have been distributed and another 50,000 tents are in the pipeline.

The United Nations wanted to avoid creating large camps “which tend to become permanent over time,” he said. The idea was to allow people to stay near the ruins of their homes and close to their jobs, rather than moving them out of the capital.

Hurricane-resistant shelter, possibly large numbers of prefabricated wood buildings, would be needed later, he said.

“This is a major challenge. We don’t have a magic solution. Hurricanes have caused major disasters in Haiti before,” Holmes said. “It will probably be a year or two before we can get people back in proper construction.”

Editing by Jonathan Lynn and Michael Roddy