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Typhoon Haiyan exposes hunger, poverty in the Philippines

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Mon, 3 Feb 2014 12:07 GMT
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CABRASAN GUTI, Philippines (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Evangeline Aloha lives in a small hut at the edge of the village, right next to jade green paddy fields that stretch as far as the eye can see. Her husband is a rice farmer but for three months each year, the family struggles to feed itself. 

Evangeline’s husband, like all farmers in this small village in Leyte Province, central Philippines, does not own land and earns 50 pesos (a little over $1) a day. Usually, they get paid in rice and forage near their home for vegetables to eat. In between the harvest and the next planting season, he has no job. 

“We don’t have any income after harvest. Farming is the only skill he has,” said the 36-year-old mother of two, cradling her two-year-old son outside her tarpaulin-roofed home.  

Her 13-year-old son is still in Grade 3, which is usually for eight-year-olds, because financial struggles mean he had to keep dropping out of school. 

Then Haiyan, the strongest storm on record to ever make landfall, struck central Philippines on Nov. 8. The family lost their roof, livestock and most of the few belongings they had.  

Still, the temporary arrival of relief goods eased long-standing problems of malnutrition and food insecurity in the village where most have been living hand-to-mouth for years.  

Now that the Alohas receive rice from the United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP), the husband, who went back to work in December, is getting cash for his labour, which they save or use to buy meat or dried fish.  

“We can now eat three meals a day instead of two,” Evangeline told Thomson Reuters Foundation. 

Fellow villager, Elena Andita, 28, said WFP’s high-energy biscuits and peanut-based fortified food helped her malnourished one year-old son to become stronger.  

Yet existing inequalities, including lack of land ownership and entrenched poverty, are impossible to tackle through short-term emergency relief. Questions on how the government can or will address these remain, as the Philippines embarks on possibly the most ambitious reconstruction programme in Southeast Asia since the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. 

NUTRITION PROBLEMS

Haiyan, known locally as Yolanda, left nearly 8,000 people dead or missing and some 4 million displaced from their homes. Evangeline said they survived by holding onto a tree, their two-year-old son tied to his father with a rope. 

The storm also destroyed hundreds of thousands of hectares of planted crops, mainly rice – the main staple food in the Philippines – and the livelihoods of almost 6 million workers. Of these, 2.6 million were already in vulnerable employment and living on or near the poverty line even before the deadly storm, said the ILO. 

Almost three months on, the 100-odd families in Cabrasan Guti, part of Tanauan Municipality in Leyte Province, are attempting to rebuild their livelihoods in whatever way they can. But they also say they will need external aid until they can begin to feed themselves again. Situated inland, the villagers cannot catch fish for sustenance, unlike their coastal neighbours. 

Many typhoon-affected villages are in a similar position. 

Stormy weather brought about by Tropical Depression Agaton in mid-January worsened the situation in parts of Haiyan-affected areas, destroying crops, forcing the displaced to move again, and further exacerbating the food security situation of typhoon-hit farmers. 

In San Fernando district in Samar Province, half of what Angeles Grefiel planted was washed away by Agaton. The family had to use rice seeds provided by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which they had hoped to save till the next planting season. 

Samir Wanmali, emergency coordinator with WFP, told Thomson Reuters Foundation access to nutritious food had always been a problem in the Philippines, especially in poor provinces such as Leyte and Samar. 

“We’re talking about the fact that we have generations of children that have grown up without having proper access to the right types of food. Food that are high in protein and micronutrients, which allow them to grow properly,” he said. 

“A natural disaster like this sort of exposes them further and so for us it’s really important that the focus goes from emergency to household food security and household livelihoods,” he added. 

Evangeline said the last time she ate meat was on New Year’s Eve. If the aid stops or her husband gets paid in rice again, she will be forced to go back to foraging for food and, if need be, buying things on credit.

What if her children get sick, this correspondent asked. 

“They don’t get sick,” she said firmly, shaking her head. 

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