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Interview: Humanitarian Coordinator for the Philippines

22 Mar 2013


January 2013, Mindanao, Philippines: People are trying to cope in the aftermath of the typhoon. Here, Nonoy Suoco sells scrap metal from tin roofing from damaged buildings in Davao to help make a living for his family. Credit: OCHA/Eva Modvig
Communities rebuild infrastructure and agriculture after Typhoon Bopha.

The Philippines was recently ranked the third most disaster-prone country in the world. Every year, the country is hit by powerful typhoons, floods, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. The ongoing conflict in the southern island of Mindanao adds to the hardship.

Luiza Carvalho took up the post of Humanitarian Coordinator in September 2012. She was soon confronted with a major humanitarian emergency when Super Typhoon Bopha (known locally as Pablo) hit Mindanao on 4 December. More than three months later, some 16,200 people are still in evacuation centres, another 839,000 are unable to return home and over 200,000 houses have been severely damaged or destroyed.

In this interview, Luiza talks about how disaster preparedness helped save lives and how the response effort is continuing.

Q. You visited some of the worst-affected areas just after the storm hit; can you describe what you saw?

It was clear from the beginning that the impact was tremendous. The effect on people’s livelihoods was obvious: banana and coconut plantations were decimated, and subsistence grains, like rice and other agricultural fields, were completely destroyed. Private homes and public infrastructure were destroyed or sustained severe damage. Schools, police stations, health-care facilities and other vital services were wiped away by the flood waters and winds.

Q. Three months on, how is the international humanitarian community responding, and what are some of the key challenges?

The Philippines has a long-standing tradition of resilience and a strong national disaster response capacity. After Bopha, the Government mobilized quickly and responded to needs. This helped UN agencies and international and national NGOs to step up their support for the authorities.

The response was organized around two thematic sectors: shelter and debris clearing. Cash-for-work and food-for-work programmes are empowering people to rebuild community facilities and services, to support their families and to restore livelihoods. Hundreds of thousands of people have received life-saving food aid, emergency shelter, water and hygiene kits.

Donors have been involved from the start, and they continue to be very active, taking part in field-level missions to see first hand the immense needs and the preliminary results of our work.

However, major challenges remain. Many of the areas that were affected are very remote, and roads and bridges suffered serious damage so it can take up to six or seven hours to reach some of these communities. WFP, UNHCR, UNICEF, IOM, UNFPA and other partners have moved some stocks to remote hubs to support them.

Q. What are the priorities for the coming months?

The Action Plan drawn up by the Philippines Government aims to address the most urgent humanitarian needs to save lives now by providing shelter, food, nutrition, protection, clean water and sanitation, and medical services for those most affected, especially women, children and the elderly. Given the devastating impact on private houses, with at least 200,000 families in need of shelter assistance, there is an urgent need to scale up the response in this area and consider how to build back better. Unfortunately, this sector is severely underfunded.

Another key concern is addressing food security and agriculture after the destruction of vast tracts of agricultural lands and products. 

Q. The Philippines is due to hold national elections in May, which may increase tensions in some areas. How is the humanitarian community addressing this?

It is important that we communicate with people in affected communities and local authorities so that they understand our work. They need to know who we are, what we are doing here and how we work. It is essential that we stress the humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and operational independence that guide our work. Security measures have also been put in place; the safety of humanitarian workers is our first priority and we are continuing to monitor the situation.

Q. What are some of the key lessons learned from Tropical Storm Washi, which hit Mindanao a year earlier?

The major lesson is the importance of disaster preparedness in saving lives. The casualty figures were lower for Typhoon Bopha than for Washi, even though this was a much more powerful storm. Part of the reason for this is that the number of people who heeded early warnings and evacuated their homes in advance was significantly higher for Bopha. This was of course a very powerful storm, but it is clear that the impact would have been far greater had people not followed preparedness procedures.

Humanitarian partners were also prepared and pre-positioned aid stocks in areas expected to be severely affected by the typhoon. An OCHA emergency response team (UNDAC) was preemptively deployed and supported the Government, together with UN agencies and NGOs.

But we urgently need resources; the humanitarian appeal for Bopha is only 42 per cent funded. We thank our donors for their support and we are very pleased to see a broadening donor base. But we need more resources to continue to help people recover from this terrible storm.