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Natural and Manmade Disasters in the Philippines

September 26th 2009, Typhoon Ondoy (Ketsana) made landfall in Luzon dumping over 12” of rain in 6 hrs on Manila and other parts of the National Capital Region. This caused massive urban flooding, 280+ deaths, destroyed homes and shelters of millions of people. Five days later, typhoon Pepeng (Parma) made landfall in northern Luzon, devastating agriculture in the Cagayan Valley. It then hung around the north west coast making landfall two more times and dumping up to 6’of water in some areas, causing massive and deadly landslides resulting in another 380+ people losing their lives. Dams in Luzon released water causing flash floods and many major cities are still flooded as government and relief agencies struggle to cope with the massive destruction. Currently there are approximately 500,000 people living in Evacuation Centers in Luzon and millions more piecing together their lives and living in areas that are still flooded. This is actually an annual occurrence affecting many areas of the Philippines. Typhoons in 2006 hit Manila and Bicol causing massive damage and loss of life.

It was absolutely inspiring to see the heroic efforts of those who helped in the immediate response to these disasters. Witnessing the resiliency and resourcefulness of people helping others, the outpouring of donations of money, food and clothing are a reflection of the generous human spirit. However, in the midst of all the generosity and relief efforts, astounding inefficiencies and lack of coordination can actually have a large negative impact on the rebuilding process. After the Bicol typhoons there was a call by many relief and government agencies to coordinate relief efforts and work together to prepare communities for these situations. Though there have been general meetings to mobilize local water and sanitation organizations and international relief agencies to develop protocols, emergency preparation efforts have been discussed, ideas proposed, but sadly, have not been coordinated nor implemented.

In general, there are four phases in addressing emergencies: preparedness, response, relief and rehabilitation. Each phase must be equally coordinated and strengthened in order to minimize risk and loss of life. In the Philippines, we are hard-pressed for strong and efficient protocols to roll out any of these phases for a few reasons.

First, the Philippines is the most disaster-prone region in all of Southeast Asia. Each year, typhoons and monsoons cause landslides, flooding and other devastating effects on communities all over the country. Also, with ongoing conflict in Mindanao, manmade disasters have caused major destruction in areas creating large populations of internally displaced people (IDPs). With the frequency of very different kinds of disasters, it has been difficult for communities as well as aid NGOs (non-governmental organizations) to try and implement effective and appropriate plans for preparedness and response.

Second, the inefficiencies of the stakeholders have been a deterrent in implementing emergency preparedness and disaster response protocols. Dealing with a number of large International NGOs (INGOs) and under-resourced government agencies with different strategies, techniques and target areas has made it difficult to organize any kind of coordinated efforts such as communications, info gathering and sharing, technology implementation and supply availabilities and distribution. To make matters worse, without these protocols in place, local government units have to wait for the Federal government to declare their areas disaster regions in need of federal support. Proper reporting from the field with the necessary information to make the declaration is crucial for timely and appropriate actions to be implemented.

Third, badly designed and implemented technologies such as toilets or wells have created adverse short term and long term effects on relief and rehabilitation. Technology implementation is often contracted out to foreign contractors with little experience in the country and focused only on immediate implementation with short term relief.

Further, we’ve found in working with these larger agencies who specialize in humanitarian relief that they have little or no basic documentation or manuals on how to build these facilities. There is very little quality control or follow-up and the failure rate is high. Although ASDSW is not a relief agency, we are in the process of developing materials along with these agencies so that response can be quicker and much more effective.

Lastly, because of the frequency of these disasters in the same general areas, local people have built a sense of resilience as it is not uncommon for many communities to live through the same tragedy more often than in other areas. Trying to mobilize communities and implement preparedness protocols in communities who have endured such disasters as frequent as many have, there is a sense of futility that overrides need for organizing.

With these recent typhoons, our projects in Luzon have been affected. One of our partner communities in Rizal Province located on an island in the middle of a river have been flooded out. Because of the sheer magnitude of the task ahead, ASDSW has two engineers working with to Oxfam to develop and implement better water and sanitation technologies and techniques. For example, one of our engineers has designed an innovative toilet on stilts or “loo with a view”, and is determined to develop a floating toilet (probably with a poop deck). We are also working towards better design for wells and rehabilitating existing wells as another way to ensure long term use in a case where the evacuation center must be used again in future disasters.

Regardless of the fact that some of the most devastating typhoons in our nation’s history have affected communities all over the Philippines in the last three years, this outcry has reached international audiences because it hit Manila, our country’s capitol. Pictures of flood devastated areas in the city prompted phone calls from celebrities pleading for help, which provided momentum for the mobilization of resources from within and outside the country. If Typhoon Ondoy had not hit Manila perhaps these efforts would have been severely under-resourced and the outcry over this tragedy may have been minimal as we’ve seen happen so often in the past.

As tragic as these natural disasters are, most people reading this, as well as most Filipinos that do not reside in the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) do not realize that one of the worst ongoing disasters in the country, if not the world is occurring 1,600 km south of Manila. There has been ongoing conflict in this region for decades between the government and the groups Muslim Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and Muslim National Liberation Front (MNLF). Peace treaties have been brokered and broken for years but in August 2008, peace talks between the government and MILF broke down. As a result, the numbers of people displaced has varied from 280,000 up to 1,000,000. Currently, this number is now estimated at 330,000 to 400,000 displaced people and is expected to remain until after the election in May 2010. Ongoing efforts by relief agencies have been hindered by the failure to cooperate from both sides as well as a lack of resources available or offered in the area. The withholding of food aid is occurring along with many human rights abuses violated on both the government and the MILF. This situation is worsening rapidly as dwindling resources already stretched thin in the region are now being diverted to Luzon for the typhoon relief.

Throughout 2008 and 2009 ASDSW worked hand in hand with seven Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), Peoples Organizations (PO) and Local Government Units (LGU) to build the Water and Sanitation capacity of thirty-one municipalities throughout ARMM. Reports from our staff noted nearby shelling while meeting with POs and LGUs; traveling to worksites through multiple check points; the killing of one of our CSO partners; trainings conducted while armed police and military looked on. Despite the ongoing conflict, ASDSW staff and our partners demonstrated tremendous dedication and kept faithful the belief we were doing the right thing.

As a testament to their hard work and relentless commitment, the culmination of over fifty small projects in these areas have implemented water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) projects which have impacted over 5,000 families. To further ensure sustainability, we have established mechanisms in all thirty-one municipalities to help them design, plan and implement WASH projects. Nearly half are now functional and proactively implementing their plans.

ASDSW is now working with OXFAM and two other local CSOs to implement a better WASH strategy for Evacuation Centers and Home Based IDPs. This also includes the development of handbooks and designs to overcome the issues that are facing already installed interventions, e.g. sanitation, water treatment, wells. Because of the deep need in ARMM, ASDSW has opened a satellite office in Cotabato City, Mindanao.

As climate change impacts become more frequent and devastating, the development of disaster management protocols is crucial in mitigating risk. Investment to engage and educate the communities in appropriate preparedness, response and relief programs can make the rehabilitation and rebuilding of their own communities less devastating. ASDSW works with communities to build their resilience and better equip them for the impending disasters, which if the last three years proves, can be an annual expectation.

Kevin Lee and Gemma Bulos