In late April of this year, fresh on the job managing Mercy Corps’ cash-for-work program in Port-au-Prince, Kristina Carvonis was asked to go to Nepal. She left her native city, which had been devastated by the 7.0-magnitude January 12 earthquake, to attend a conference in Kathmandu on Disaster Risk Reduction.
Counter-intuitive? For countries like Haiti, which are prone to hurricanes, flooding and earthquakes, there is always more that can be done to help prepare people for emergency.
Kristina shares what she learned in Nepal and how she sees putting it to use in Haiti in the interview below.
Tell us more about the Nepal training.
It was a cross visit for Mercy Corps employees from around the world to see the program in Nepal—a Mercy Corps country program that has been very successful in Disaster Risk Reduction. Mercy Corps representatives came from Niger, China, Tajikistan, Indonesia, Georgia, East Timor, Myanmar, Nepal and Haiti.
Over the course of week, we shared with each other the issues that each of us faces in our country, including tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, floods — these were the big ones. The majority of our countries had flooding. We exchanged ideas and techniques for reducing the effects of natural disaster for people living in our countries. And we talked about the effects of climate change as well.
What are some of ways you learned to reduce risk of disaster?
We learned about the Hyogo Framework for Action, a set of humanitarian guidelines for disaster risk reduction that was created in Kobe, Hyogo, Japan in 2005. It gives different steps that need to be implemented by a country or even a village to follow in order to be prepared for a disaster. One step might be to do what’s called a “vulnerability assessment,” which is to survey an area to see what the risks are and better understand what you need to prepare for.
If the evaluation shows that an area is vulnerable to hurricanes or flooding, then you could begin to put an early warning system in place to alert people when a storm is coming and give them instructions about what to do. Here in Haiti, we know that another earthquake is imminent. Unfortunately there’s no early warning for earthquakes. But you can still prepare people for them, and do drills. If there’s an earthquake coming, people need to know that they need to do to secure their homes and their belongings and get enough water.
What was it like to travel to Nepal?
I found it really exciting because in Nepal, the terrain is very similar to Haiti. They have lots of earthquakes, landslides, and floods. The floods come every year. Also, it seemed that the education level in Nepal is similar to what it is in Haiti, and yet in Nepal they were able to teach people a lot about how to take care of themselves in an emergency. I was encouraged, because sometimes in Haiti, we make the excuse that due to low levels of education, we can’t make the changes we need to. But in Nepal, the Mercy Corps team was able to really do a lot.
I noticed everything about the country! The smells, the trees. Like Port-au-Prince, there is noise and horns in the street. But the language is different and the people look different. But the things that were amazing to me was that when we went to villages, I saw that people live in difficult conditions there too, but they’ve been able to make real improvements to their situation. They live in mud houses, but they’ve also been able to come up with an evacuation system in case of flooding. They had built a shelter for the people in the village who were the most vulnerable to flooding, so they didn’t have to go so far from the village when flooding happened. I was amazed. I want to see my Haitian compatriots organize themselves like that.
People in these villages had also learned to save grains for the flood season. They had made sure it was enough for them to either eat or to sell, so that when the floods came they had food or could purchase things. They had collected all these before the floods. The mountains of Nepal have all these rivers that all join into one and that river gets engorged and floods the plain where everyone lives.
What was something that you saw in Nepal that you think would also work in Haiti?
You definitely have to take culture into account when you’re considering whether something will work in a country. In Nepal, they used street skits to educate people on emergency preparedness and teach them about safety. They would act out scenarios before an audience in a village and make it easy to understand and entertaining. Wherever you turn in Haiti, there is art and music — even when Haitians are protesting! I’m sure that we could do the same kind of street skit here in Haiti, using the Haitian love of art and expression to channel educational messages.
I go to the camps here in Port-au-Prince every day. I manage Mercy Corps’ cash for work program here, which employs earthquake survivors in clean-up and rebuilding projects. It gives them income to use to provide for their families and improves camp conditions.
At the camps, I could see us doing Disaster Risk Reduction street skits. You could have a troupe that would go to site to site to do the trainings there. The trainings could be about natural disasters like earthquakes. They could also cover hygiene issues like the importance of washing your hands or avoiding HIV/AIDS. The majority of people haven’t been to school and they haven’t ever had this type of minimal information.
Many people didn’t even know what an earthquake was. Even now, I hear people on the radio saying that the earthquake was a punishment from God. People need to understand the natural causes of an earthquake, and that there are measures that they can take to help themselves during an earthquake, rather than just succumbing to it. Education is key. I recognize that I’ve had the opportunity to have an education. I can go online and research what I need to do to help my family during an earthquake. Many people don’t have that option. But we can help bring that information to them.
How have you started using what you learned in Nepal?
Right now I’m going to camps and speaking with groups of people about what kinds of things are happening in the camp. My goal is to help them link what is happening around them to the effects on their environment. For example, showing them how to properly dispose of garbage so it doesn’t cause health issues for the camp. Or to look at how water is flooding tents and looking at what needs to be done to prevent flooding in that area.
These days the main concerns in the camps are flooding, security and food security. Flooding is big because it’s rainy season and it’s raining every day.
Even before the earthquake flooding was a major problem. Houses in the slums of Port-au-Prince, called bidonville, were built right up on top of each other. They were built in any random place. Some were built even in beds of rivers. Flooding is even worse now, because so many are living in tents.
Education and training are the two most important things I see for Haiti in terms of reducing our vulnerability to disaster. I continue to look for ways to incorporate both of these things into my work.