As Typhoon Bopha, known locally as Pablo, approaches the Philippines, we're all asking ourselves the same questions: Where is it going? How bad will it hit? Are those communities as prepared as they could be for such a disaster?
To a certain extent, we can predict much of this. Satellite imagery means that we can track where Bopha has been, where it's likely to go next and how powerful it is. At last check, it was a category 3 typhoon (although this can vary from source to source), which on a scale that goes up to five, means it's packing quite a punch. Though it's been downgraded from a super typhoon, it still has winds approaching 175kmh.
Bopha has always been on a collision course with the Philippines, but the path its been likely to take has shifted somewhat in the last day or so. At present, we think it's going to enter through the eastern part of Mindanao at 6 am tomorrow and then onto Visayas. It's currently about 600km away and moving about 20kmh, or thereabouts.
Reports on the Internet have varied in terms of what kind of destruction we can expect from Bopha. At the top end of the scale, there has been speculation that Bopha could wreak more havoc than Typhoon Sendong, which ravaged Mindanao last year, causing more than 1,200 deaths, with many more missing.
After Sendong smacked Mindanao (not an area we normally implement programmes), Plan launched an emergency response, providing relief kits for children and their families and setting up evacuation centres for some of the thousands of people whose homes were destroyed or damaged. In the longer term, we worked with our local partners to set up child-friendly spaces and provide psycho-social support to those struggling to come to terms with what happened.
The devastation on the island was immense, especially in Cagayan de Oro and Iligan. The typhoon was also a wakeup call to the local authorities as many people were underprepared for such a natural disaster. Even now, almost one year on, there are still many living in evacuation centres.
Disaster preparedness is something we feel very strong about at Plan and in the areas where we implement programmes, we invest in it heavily. The idea is that communities take the lead in figuring out what hazards they are prone to, and then with the support of Plan and local partner organisations, the communities can work out how to prepare for a disaster and what to do when one strikes.
Children are obviously a huge part of this and we can't emphasise enough the importance of children being empowered and involved in disaster risk reduction activities. Children are the most affected by disasters, so they simply can't be ignored. They have a fundamental right to be part of decisions that affect their lives so they can understand what is happening and grow up with the kind of knowledge that can save lives.
We know that parts of Mindanao vary in terms of how well they can cope with a typhoon like Bopha, so we can't say for sure how this will play out. What my colleagues at Plan Philippines are doing at the moment is buying non-food items like jerry cans, hygiene kits and water purification kits that can be distributed right away, as and when needed, while an emergency "Go" team is getting ready to be deployed to affected areas.
Here in Manila, it's a clear, sunny day. You really wouldn't think that there's a potentially deadly typhoon making its approach not too far away. Thanks to social media, though, it's possible to get an accurate understanding of what's happening. Twitter has become invaluable in that sense. On my desktop, I have Tweetdeck set up to monitor the hashtags #Bopha and #PabloPH, and I also have a Twitter list of people and organisations who are sharing useful information about what's going on. Through the Plan Asia account and my personal one, I can keep abreast of the latest developments and also engage with people who are in the areas that will be affected.
Getting ready for the big one
As I write this, Plan Philippines has held its Crisis Management Team meeting and my colleagues are now rushing around trying to get everything sorted. As a member of Plan's Asia Regional Office communications team, my role is to be here and help my colleagues communicate what they're doing to our internal and external audiences. This is important because it means we can do our jobs better.
If Plan is visible and people see what we're doing, it makes it easier to get funding to support our emergency response. It paves the way to a higher level of acceptance by everyone from communities to donors to the government and makes it easier for us to spotlight key issues that otherwise may not get attention they deserve, such as the need for child-friendly spaces or the vulnerability of children during and after a natural disaster of this magnitude.
We still have a long way to go, but we'll be posting regular updates to our Twitter account and Facebook page as this unfolds. In the mean time, I'll be travelling to Visayas today while my colleague from Plan Philippines will travel to Mindanao after Bopha has made landfall.