Tom Bamforth, head of the shelter cluster in Mindanao
Two months ago “super-typhoon Bopha”, with wind speeds of 230 kmh, made landfall in Mindanao, in the southern Philippines. Its hard to explain the devastation that such a storm can wreak but when I arrived as an aid coordinator, I was met by scenes of saw total destruction. Palm trees splintered like giant toothpicks, mud, trees and debris from broken homes were scattered everywhere. The force of nature was such that in one village, Andaap, landslides and flash flooding caused giant boulders and a torrent of water to wash downstream, sweeping away 204 houses and leaving 344 people dead.
In total, 2,000 Filipinos were left dead or remain missing. Another 1 million lost their homes. Half a million are reliant on emergency food aid. In total, it is estimated that 6.2 million people were impacted by the storm in some way. But the humanitarian response to Bopha has been sluggish and underfunded.
Some donors I met urged me to see Bopha as an “opportunity” to lure tourism and promote private-sector investment rather than give “aid hand-outs”. Sadly, “recruiters” have been quick to take up such opportunities – offering women, whose livelihoods had been destroyed in the disaster, contracts to work in domestic labour overseas. At $400 a month, these contracts are lucrative to many local people. But there is a risk of physical, sexual and economic abuse, not to mention the increased vulnerability of children and families left behind.
We have been repeatedly told by potential donors – the big aid arms of governments around the world – that the Philippines is a “middle-income country”, one with a well-resourced government and a capable civil service. Yet the Philippines is highly indebted and recent development gains are fragile when faced with such large-scale disasters. The absence of work for many people here means about one in 10 Filipinos seek economic opportunities outside the country. In the conflict-affected rural and indigenous areas in Mindanao where Bopha hit, the “middle-income” excuse for donor reticence is even less plausible.
In many cases there was near total destruction of housing, livelihoods and social infrastructure. Two months after the disaster, only a quarter of emergency shelter needs have been met. As one of the few organisations committed to supporting shelter, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) can only fund a third of the emergency shelter repair kits that it pledged to provide.
In areas where people have received help, rebuilding and recovery have begun. Elsewhere, people live in makeshift shelters made from the debris of their former homes. They are ‘building back worse’ and are now more vulnerable than before the typhoon struck.
The humanitarian response to other disasters – like the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami - has been used to restore lives and dignity and to build peace. Ironically, in Mindanao the tentative economic and political progress made recently may have disqualified the response to Bopha from receiving adequate funding.
For one woman I met, whose home was a flooded tent, Bopha had brought devastation. For millions more, if the response remains underfunded, there will be an inestimable cost in lost homes, livelihoods and opportunities that will to take its toll for years to come.
The author,Tom Bamforth, is the Coordinator of the Shelter Cluster, an inter-agency coordination platform that brings together local and international humanitarian organisations that are responding to emergency shelter needs in Mindanao.