The Philippines: "I always fear the floods will sweep my children away"

1 November, 2011
Muktar Ali Farah, Head of OCHA's sub office in Mindanao, talks to children during a needs assessment of a flood-ravaged village. Credit: Jason Gutierrez
Muktar Ali Farah, Head of OCHA's sub office in Mindanao, talks to children during a needs assessment of a flood-ravaged village. Credit: Jason Gutierrez

Mariam Usman has just rebuilt her home on wooden stilts, and the memory of the floods that swallowed her village in June is still fresh.

“I always fear that the floods will sweep my children away,” says Ms Usman. A 36-year-old mother of six, she has good reason to be anxious. The small community of Purok Ibrahim 2 is precariously sandwiched between the Tamontaka and Rio Grande rivers in Mindanao, the southernmost island of the Philippines.

Almost every year, seasonal rains turn the surrounding marshland into raging rapids. “The water goes as high as our necks and the current can be very, very strong,” Ms Usman explains.

The rains in June 2011 were particularly heavy. Uncontrolled growth of water hyacinths had clogged waterways, and rivers burst their banks. Dozens of people were killed and more than 700,000 were affected. Some of the Philippines’ poorest communities were devastated.

Ms Usman recalls how the lone coconut timber footbridge - their only way out - buckled under the current. “We were very scared and were marooned in our homes,” she said.

With waters rapidly rising, she braved the torrents and found safety on an elevated portion of road, along with her children and husband, Akmad.  “It was extremely hard. We didn't know where to begin to rebuild,” Ms Usman said.

Following a request by the central Government, OCHA helped provide assistance, fast. “OCHA responds quickly to the urgent needs of populations affected by emergencies,” said Muktar Ali Farah, head of the organization’s sub-office in the nearby town of Cotabato. “We identify critical needs and get them addressed in the soonest possible time.”

The OCHA-managed Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) – a humanitarian fund for immediate assistance to those affected by natural disasters and armed conflicts – quickly approved the release of $US 5 million to kick-start relief efforts.

The funds helped the World Food Programme provide emergency food for nearly 500,000 people affected by the floods, as well as providing logistics support such as transportation and warehousing.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) established therapeutic feeding for children with severe acute malnutrition, as well as pregnant women and mothers with babies.

As assistance got underway and more aid agencies got involved, OCHA worked to ensure relief was targeted to those most in need.
“OCHA's role is critical,” says Maria Ena Olmedo, from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Mindanao. “We've seen instances in the past when aid agencies - in their eagerness to help - were working on their own without proper coordination, leading to a lot of duplication.”

IOM deployed teams to monitor humanitarian needs, and to distribute shelter materials, cooking equipment and mosquito nets. They also installed water and sanitation facilities and repaired the footbridge.

“OCHA has made it easier for us to help our fellow Filipinos,” said Elson Monato of the local NGO Mindanao Tulong Bakwit. “We now know who to approach to get quick answers for whatever aid we need on the ground.”

“My kids can now run from house to house in this village, we feel safer now with the new bridge” adds Ms Usman. “When the floods come again, we know there are people who will quickly help us."

Reporting by Jason Gutierrez.

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