The HC Interview: The Philippines
The Philippines is one of the world’s most disaster-prone countries. One third of its population of 94.9 million people live below the poverty line and are vulnerable to the typhoons, floods, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions that plague the country.
In 2011, there were 21 natural disasters in the Philippines. They affected some 7 million people and resulted in almost 400 registered deaths, according to the World Health Organization Collaborating Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters.
The most recent major disaster, Tropical Storm Washi, devastated large parts of the southern island group of Mindanao in December 2011. The storm brought 10 solid hours of torrential rain, causing a three-metre wall of water, mud and logs to cascade down the mountains in the cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan, wiping out everything along the riverside. More than 624,000 people were affected and tens of thousands of homes were destroyed, leaving many families displaced and in desperate need of aid.
OCHA’s Humanitarian Coordinator Jacqui Badcock has led UN humanitarian efforts in the Philippines since September 2009. She talks about the importance of working with the Government and other partners to promote disaster preparedness and risk reduction in the country.
A. The Philippines is very disaster prone. Last year, it was listed as the third most disaster-prone place in the world, and it is suspected that this year it might come up top because of several major disasters—typhoons, floods, earthquakes, volcanoes and tornados.
The Philippines experiences around 20 major tropical storms a year. Since I have been in this country, we have had two extraordinarily major storms that have had serious humanitarian consequences: Typhoon Ketsana in Manila in 2009 and Tropical Storm Washi in northern Mindanao in 2011. The country doesn’t just face natural disasters; it is also affected by conflict. We have had periods of quite major displacements in central Mindanao because of ongoing armed conflict between the army and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which has been fighting for more autonomy for the Moro people. Also in Mindanao, there is a complex pattern of interclan disputes over land and politics, locally know as ridos, which causes displacement as well.
A third of the population lives below the poverty line and remains vulnerable to the impact of natural disasters. The country is an archipelago of 7,000 islands sitting in the middle of a typhoon belt, and so it’s extraordinarily vulnerable to the impact of climate change and sea-level rise.
Q. You visited Mindanao after the storm. Can you describe what you saw?
A. In December last year, just before Christmas, Tropical Storm Washi affected some 624,600 people. There were 1,295 reported deaths, almost 2,000 injuries and 39,600 damaged homes in the very northern coastal areas of Mindanao. Four months later, in April, there are still about 283,000 people displaced, half of whom are still in evacuation centres in the two major cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan.
I went to the disaster-affected areas soon after the storm and was really struck by the incredible devastation that had taken place. It was reported as a tropical storm with a lot of floods and damage, but the affected areas looked as if an inland tsunami had gone through them. Whole communities were just wiped out and concrete structures were totally gone. So much land was stripped away and so many houses were destroyed. It didn’t just affect poor families but also families living in mid-income suburbs. Many of their homes were destroyed or filled with mud and debris.
A. One of the biggest concerns was the overcrowding in evacuation centres. It was very difficult for the displaced people. In some places there were 20 to 30 families in one room all living in close proximity and on top of each other. It was a very stressful situation.
There are still 5,000 displaced families in evacuation centres awaiting relocation to permanent shelters. The challenges are in securing sufficient land for the construction of shelter, land ownership, tenure security and advocacy for safe, informed and dignified relocations.
Providing immediate access to potable and bathing water, as well as sanitation and hygiene facilities, in evacuation centres was a challenge at the onset of the emergency. The water supply has since been largely restored, with many wells and supply pumps rehabilitated.
Many families in remote and inaccessible areas outside Cagayan de Oro and Iligan were also affected. These areas could only be accessed by air, so providing assistance to the isolated communities was also a huge challenge.
Another challenge we are facing now is making sure we are better prepared to cope with these disasters. This means that we need to get going on disaster risk reduction and preparedness for the future.
We now need to really focus on early recovery and the longer-term challenges. We need to make sure we build back better with more resilience so that communities can move back home and move on with their lives.
Q. How have donors responded to the 2012 Humanitarian Action Plan? Is there enough funding to carry out the work in the affected areas?
A. One of the constant problems we have with the Humanitarian Action Plan is keeping donor engagement and understanding that humanitarian issues are ongoing. I am very concerned about the funding for central Mindanao because limited funding ultimately means that humanitarian organizations will have to hibernate. They will have to cutback their activities while there are still many displaced people. There are also many people who have gone home, but who still need help because they have gone home to nothing and the needs are still very vast.
Q. The Government of the Philippines recently launched the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Plan. How important is this and what is OCHA’s role in this plan?
A. The plan is for the Government to strengthen its own capacity to prepare and respond to emergencies at all levels. It will provide a framework for investment in preparedness, especially since the Government aims to have zero casualties and make sure lives are saved. We are working very closely with the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council on all humanitarian issues, including preparedness.
We want to do a lot more community-based preparedness exercises. We want to provide more support to the implementation of national and local preparedness, and response policies, plans and systems. There are some good examples from different parts of the country and the aim is to share this with everyone.
The Philippines is learning from its own disaster experiences, and I think another important thing we can do is to help with knowledge management. OCHA has been in the country during two major disasters: Typhoon Ketsana in Manila in 2009 and Tropical Storm Washi in Mindanao in 2011. We need to document the lessons learned and make sure the Government is ready to respond to the next one.
Q. How can we improve Asia-Pacific regional disaster preparedness and early warning mechanisms? Can you also talk about the improvements and the lessons learned?
A. I do think a lot of progress has been made in the humanitarian field, and there is greater coordination within humanitarian organizations and between humanitarian organizations and governments. Having worked for other UN agencies, I can see the value of the coordination effort compared to the past when we just did our own thing. Having said that, now we need to look into how we can further improve coordination.
The UN is just one player out there. We need to do a lot more to support inter-governmental organizations who are thinking more along the lines of disaster preparedness and disaster risk reduction. In this region, the OCHA office in Fiji works very closely with the Pacific Forum that addresses disaster risk reduction in the region. Similarly, OCHA in Bangkok is supporting the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) work in this field, which is very much in its infancy.
At the end of the day, governments in the region need to be able to take responsibility for the disasters themselves, and we should be there supporting that aspiration. So our role should be capacity-building and support. I think that is something we are able to do very strongly here in the Philippines.