BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - On Nov. 8, super storm Haiyan hit the central Philippines, bringing a seven-metre storm surge and reducing everything in its path to rubble. Over 6,000 people died and some 14 million were affected. Nearly six weeks later, 4.1 million people remain displaced and almost 1,800 are still missing. Aid agencies have launched a $791 million recovery plan.
Thomson Reuters Foundation spoke to Luiza Carvalho, the United Nations resident and humanitarian coordinator in the Philippines, on how aid efforts are progressing.
Q: You’ve recently returned from the areas, including Tacloban, which bore the brunt of the storm. What is it like there now?
A: I’ve been there four times already. Every time you go back, you perceive clear changes. People are not just waiting for help, they’re pushing and helping themselves. You also see the presence of national and international agencies and the government. The pipeline of support and aid is now working at full speed.
There was a problem in the beginning. We had helicopters visiting the airport a few hours after the storm passed Tacloban. They figured they could not land any aeroplanes so the government had to assemble what troops they could and clean the airport so the first C130 could land.
These are the sort of difficulties that massive destruction imposes on everybody. Now, the Philippines has adopted the cluster system and it’s working well. So you have a conglomerate of non-governmental organisations and agencies around a theme like health, agriculture, food security. That really eliminates duplication and speeds up the response.
One of the things that most impressed me was in barangay 88 (the smallest administration unit), one of the two most affected in Tacloban. The barangay captain estimates that she lost about 1,000 people in that barangay alone. They’re organising the help themselves at a community level.
Q: What do you think will be the biggest challenges in the recovery period?
A: If you look at the path of the typhoon, there are two clear, different responses. One is for the typhoon and another in areas where there was a water surge. In places badly affected by the water surge, they would need the whole spectrum of relief. In other regions, you can have very good ‘quick wins’. This is what we should aim at - work at both levels but try to phase out in some areas where the response is not as complex.
We’re now facing two big problems. One is the timing of the rice planting season. We’ve been distributing seeds and have to reach 50,000 families before the end of January. This will ensure that 33,000 hectares of rice are planted, which will produce 66,000 tonnes of rice in April 2014.
Why is this so important? Because this would feed 600,000 people for one year. This is the sort of sustainable solution we’re looking for because if we can ensure that all the rice farmers planting for their own subsistence are provided with seeds, they will have their harvest by April, so they will not depend on food distribution.
There is also a campaign in Capiz called “Adopt a Boat”. We now know 28,000 boats were lost, not the 100,000 that people were saying. We have to be careful because otherwise we will overload the area with boats. And the area the typhoon crossed has seen a decline in fish productivity since 2006.
So we also have to work very carefully on the size of the net and the boats that we’ll distribute. Otherwise, we will contribute to the depletion of the ecosystem. Although it’s a humanitarian phase, we can do our best through sustainable solutions.
Q: How long do you think the recovery will take?
A: The government is estimating two to three years. But it’s already one year after we had Typhoon Pablo, it’s going ok, but it needs a new injection of resources, support and technical assistance.
I think it will take about three years to recover (from Haiyan) if we maintain the assistance and the presence, and the projects are flowing. Of course, we have to build back better. We have to find safe places and build under construction codes that can stand wind, earthquakes, landslides and floods, four factors quite common in the Philippines.
It’s a complex process and it’s also much more expensive because you need different codes and materials.
For instance, we’re making a solidarity call to countries around the Philippines for corrugated iron sheets (for roofing) but they have to be the right size - 0.46 millimetres thick - because this can withstand winds of more than 250km/hour.
We’re very motivated by Aceh (which recovered from the 2004 tsunami). They were very stable and very well-funded throughout the process. The UNDP brought the Aceh coordinator for the process here and he said resource mobilisation depends a lot on media coverage, good work delivered and accountability.
These three aspects are very high on the government agenda and our agenda in the region.
Q: What about other ongoing emergencies in the Philippines?
A: Yes, we still have two ongoing crises. The Bohol earthquake affected 3.2 million people. We still have 360,000 people displaced. The size of the appeal that we’re making - $47 million - is quite modest and we’re only 21 percent funded.
In the Zamboanga crisis we still have 66,000 people displaced. They’re very very poor and we do have a very critical nutrition and shelter programme. It’s only 15 percent funded.
We do need support for both of them. 2013 has been very very dramatic and atypical because we’ve been doing relief, response, early recovery, preparedness throughout the year. I hope nobody forgets the Philippines and the humanitarian workers here so we can really complete our work.
Q: Do you find it difficult to respond to emergencies when there are so many needs and people have a short attention span?
A: Unfortunately we do compete for attention. Now we have Central African Republic and Syria and ongoing crises such as Sudan and Afghanistan. Before Haiyan, we already had 2.5 million people displaced in the Philippines. Of course, we are afraid of donor fatigue. And it’s a very cruel competition.
Q: There was criticism early on about slow aid. Was that warranted or because people didn’t understand the scale of the disaster?
A: I think people didn’t understand the scale of the disaster. We heard from the mayor of Guiuan (where Haiyan made its first landfall) that when he heard there was going to be a seawater surge, he went to the internet and found out the name they used in the Philippines is tidal waves and the impact similar to a tsunami. So he … immediately went to inform the barangay captains and community leaders. So although the surge there wasn’t as bad as in Tacloban, it was very well protected. (Only about 100 people died out of a population of 45,000.) So we need to find a way of communicating and using terminology that the communities understand.