Health experts say the international community has turned a blind eye to widespread food insecurity in Haiti, where communities across nearly every region of the island are approaching risk of famine.
In March, a report from the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimated that of the 2.1 million Haitians affected by the hurricane last October, 1.4 million still don’t have enough food or safe drinking water.
More recently, statistics from the European Commission indicated that eight out of Haiti’s 10 departments have reached “crisis” levels of food insecurity. The EU institution said that three of those regions would likely be in a state of emergency or famine had they not received humanitarian assistance.
According to health experts from the St. Boniface Haiti Foundation, one of several in-country actors locating and treating people suffering from malnutrition, the food insecurity crisis has received little attention from international policymakers and organizations.
“I wonder if it’s the fact that Haiti has experienced natural disasters before, and therefore this one isn’t getting the attention it deserves,” St. Boniface Haiti Foundation President and CEO Conor Shapiro told Humanosphere. “But there’s no question that this is being largely ignored by the international community.”
“While there are people within the country that are doing their best to respond to it, the resources just aren’t available to respond to the crisis in the way it needs to be responded to,” he added.
Haiti’s food insecurity crisis comes nearly eight months after the Caribbean island was struck by Category 4 Hurricane Matthew. The storm, which tore through the Caribbean, killed more than 700 people – mostly in Haiti – and caused $2.8 billion in damage.
Aid groups rushed to restore food security for nearly 1 million people, but food distributions largely stopped in January. Since then, many of Haiti’s hardest-hit areas have received little to nothing in terms of food aid.
The impact has been devastating among Haiti’s poorest. The vast majority of the population depends on subsistence agriculture for their nutritional needs, and rural populations were already struggling to cope with a severe drought that had devastated crops even before the hurricane.
Shapiro said one particularly hard-hit community on the country’s southern Peninsula has seen an enormous increase in malnourished children in just the past six months.
“This is the driest section of Fond-des-Blancs, where it’s really the hardest to grow crops. … These kids were probably nutrient-deficient or mildly malnourished before the storm, and the crop loss and the impact its had on their families has just exacerbated that,” he said.
For the 2.1 million people who live on the southern peninsula, St. Boniface’s hospital has the only inpatient malnutrition wards capable of treating severe malnutrition for children under 5. But the hospital – in conjunction with efforts from UNICEF, Oxfam and other in-country actors – is unable to meet the nutritional health needs on the southern peninsula.
Multiple media reports have found people are staving off hunger by eating poisonous plants or tree bark. On March 22, Food for the Poor found 240 people, including 84 women and 62 children, living in a cave near Jérémie in Grand’Anse.
“They have no food. They have no water. They have no shelter,” Food For The Poor President and CEO Robin Mahfood told the Miami Herald. “It really is a crime against humanity.”
In the Southern Peninsula regions of Maniche, Tiburon and Fond-des-Blancs, St. Boniface and UNICEF are jointly setting up new mobile clinics aimed at providing health services to children under 5 and pregnant and lactating women. The clinics will also be set up to screen for malnutrition, Shapiro said.
“We’re trying to get out into even more remote areas to find malnourished children that may need more acute care,” Shapiro said. “We’re looking at a total of 680 thousand people in emergency, one phase removed from famine.”
The food insecurity crisis comes amid an ongoing outbreak of cholera, with an estimated 30,000 cases expected this year. Latin America and the Caribbean’s poorest country is also still recovering from the effects of the January 2010 earthquake, with tens of thousands of people still camping in tents without access to clean water or proper sanitation.