An average of 20 typhoons hit the Philippines every year. As one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world, the Philippines has well established capabilities for managing disasters. Fewer and fewer people are therefore killed by natural disasters. However, at the end of 2006, the scale and frequency of typhoons increased and led to the destruction of over 300,000 houses and made close to 1.5 million people homeless across 3 provinces. The country’s own disaster management resources were consequently overstretched. and international assistance stepped in. The European Commission humanitarian aid department (ECHO) provided assistance to the most vulnerable by funding an International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) programme that provides typhoon-resistant housing in the most affected areas.
San Andres, Catanduanes, Philippines: an ink-blue sea, lush green hills against a light blue sky dotted with white clouds - a real picture postcard. But look again, and you will notice disheveled coconut trees, witnesses to the damage that typhoons inflict on Catanduanes, one of the Philippines’ most eastern islands.
An average of 20 typhoons hit the Philippines every year. Many of them first hit land in Catanduanes. People seem to be used to them; used to picking up their few belongings and running to shelter to the nearest school or just to the next-door neighbour who is lucky enough to be able to afford a house made of concrete and with a solid roof. In disaster-prone Philippines, early warning systems work well. Local authorities and volunteer groups such as those of the Red Cross, generally manage to evacuate people in time and to cover their immediate needs for food and shelter.
It is towards the end of the typhoon season, in October and November that the situation often becomes critical. The scale and frequency of the winds results in the fleeing populations barley having time to recover between each crisis and each time exhausts and overwhelms local resources. This was the case on 30th November 2006 when ‘Durian’, the last of 4 major typhoons, hit Catanduanes and the Bicol area within a 6-week period, pulling off roofs, caving in walls, breaking electricity poles and flooding farmland and residential areas.
‘The children were so scared, they were screaming’ Belinda Tapit recalls. ‘The rain and the wind made an incredible noise’. Just before the roof of their house was torn off, they ran for shelter to the family next door who lived in a concrete house. ‘Everything we had was wet within minutes’. Belinda, mother of 5, has no job; neither do her two oldest children who have already finished their schooling. Her husband drives a cyclotaxi, for which he pays rent. Losing their few belongings is a major setback for a family that has to get by on so little. For Belinda this was the second time in the past 6 years that her house was destroyed by a typhoon. Since December; the family have only been able to build a small make-shift house from plastic sheets, bamboo poles and palm leaves – totally insufficient to withstand the next storms.
To help break this vicious cycle of loss, the European Commission decided to fund the Red Cross to train people in how to build traditional houses which are typhoon-resistant with minimal means. By making just a few adjustments to their traditional building techniques, such as using diagonal bracing and setting the poles of the house's frame in concrete, their new homes will have the strength to resist typhoons. The project includes the provision of the tools and materials necessary for the construction of these houses. The families themselves help with the actual construction as much as they can, under the supervision of professional and specially trained carpenters. 6,000 families across 5 provinces affected by the wave of last year’s cyclones are receiving such a house and another 6,000 will receive the necessary tool-kits and roofing materials to reinforce their damaged houses.
Belinda Tapit is waiting for her share of the materials. Together with other men and women from the same villages, she sits on the low concrete wall surrounding a big square from which Red Cross volunteers distribute timber pillars, cement bags, gravel and other materials. As she busily stitches a pink flower on white pillow case, Belinda says with a soft smile ‘You never really get used to the typhoons’.
A good one hundred kilometres to the West, close to Naga town, the provincial capital of Camarin Sur, several hundred houses with enhanced roofs have been completed. They belong to families made homeless by the same series of typhoons that hit Catanduanes. They are relieved to have a roof over their heads that will withstand the next typhoon season.
ECHO Regional Information Officer - South and South East Asia
Based in Thailand