It is almost 100 days since the most powerful typhoon ever recorded slammed into the Eastern Philippines, killing over 6 000 people and damaging over a million homes. Survivors today are still facing big challenges in meeting some of their basic daily needs. A team from the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department ECHO has recently visited Tacloban, the storm epicenter, and its surrounding areas to monitor EU-funded projects and ascertain the future needs of the affected communities.
Evelia Tanola, 58, widowed grandmother, calmly waits her turn in line for supplementary food for her four small grandchildren: “My husband was killed during the storm. Our home was also badly damaged”, she explains. “I now have to look after my four small grandchildren as their parents left for Manila to find work”.
Evelia is one of some 50 women queuing in the pouring rain outside the town of Palo, south of Tacloban. They are waiting to receive a bag containing their one month’s ration of protein biscuits and pots of Plumpy’nuts funded by ECHO and distributed to vulnerable families with small children through a project implemented by the World Food Programme (WFP) and Save the Children.
Three months after Typhoon Haiyan (locally known as Yolanda) struck, the devastation is still shocking. In Tacloban and surrounding villages, houses were thrown about like matchboxes, hospital roofs torn off and electricity and communications pylons snapped like matchsticks. The cyclone marked a path of destruction across six islands in the archipelago. While the wind did its share of the damage, it was the massive storm surge that caught many by surprise. Waves of up to 6 meters were reported to have smashed into Tacloban and the nearby coastal areas, killing thousands in their homes and even in public buildings, which served as emergency shelters.
Three months on, aid efforts are in full swing. Food rations are being distributed, roads cleared, electricity, communications and water supplies, at least partially, restored. Yet thousands are still living in flimsy shelters of wood and plastic tarpaulin, and many businesses remain shut while some public buildings are still damaged.
The European Union is one of the largest contributors to the international aid effort, with over €178 million provided in humanitarian and reconstruction assistance. This includes the assistance provided by EU Member States during the initial emergency phase, and the support from the European Commission, which has released EUR 40 million in life-saving interventions and early recovery. Funds are being channeled through a number of organisations already present in the country, such as the Red Cross, WFP, Plan International, Action Contre la Faim, UNICEF, to name a few.
In a small barangay (village) near the town of General MacArthur on the Eastern coast of Samar Island, 20 men and women are slowly clearing the huge piles of debris which used to be their homes. “We used EU funds to provide the workers from the village with protective clothing and gloves, and vaccinated them against tetanus so they can clear the area in preparation for rebuilding their community”, explains Arnold Pecan, the Philippine project manager for a Cash-for-Work initiative implemented by the international NGO Plan International. “This project gives people a feeling of self-worthiness as they can decide themselves how to spend their wages, either for construction material, school fees or other items they need.”
Speaking to the survivors at various locations, the ECHO team quickly learned that the current most urgent needs are for house reconstruction assistance. “The beneficiaries of our projects are very grateful for the initial aid distributions they received”, highlights Evangelos Petratos, ECHO’s Shelter and WASH expert. “But people are now requesting urgent assistance to rebuild their homes, such as tools, material and carpenters – especially now, during the rainy season”. Many survivors still live in difficult conditions, made even more miserable by another tropical depression which hit the area in late January causing landslides, flooding and forcing renewed evacuations of families.
To address the urgent need for building material, the EU supports the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in turning some of the millions of destroyed coconut trees in the affected areas into building material. Teams of workers with chain saws are working non-stop to cut the trees and turn them into beams which can be used to construct the frames for basic new shelters. The beams are distributed to families free of charge while the landowners receive 10% of these in return for allowing their land to be exploited. Small sawmills have been transported to the area to turn some of the logs into planks. The difficulty however lies in assisting vulnerable households such as those headed by women or the elderly, who may not be able to repair their homes or build new shelters without the assistance of skilled carpenters. One of them is Merlinda Celvadores, 42, single mother with two daughters who is participating in the Cash-for-Work initiative. She picks up her salary at the local pawn-shop which is dispensing the cash to people. “I need this money to pay for the school fees but also to hire some workers and material to rebuild our roof, which is still leaking.”
Meanwhile, other urgent needs, such as the vaccination of children against common childhood diseases, also need to be addressed. In Guiuan, a small town on a low lying peninsula which juts out into the Pacific Ocean, UNICEF has been rolling out a wide-ranging vaccination program. At a health station which has been rudimentarily repaired with plastic sheeting, women with infants are queuing patiently to have their children vaccinated. Babies cry out as they receive their shots – a vaccination which will protect them against potentially deadly diseases, such as measles and polio.
Vaccines have to be transported and stored in cool conditions, yet the electricity supply is sporadic in the area. Therefore, UNICEF is using EU funds to bring in special refrigerators that can function without the normal electricity supply. This will help establish a ‘cold chain’ from the main towns to the villages in order to safeguard the effectiveness of the vaccines supplied. Yet, there is still a major obstacle which humanitarians are helping to solve: the destroyed local health stations need to be rebuilt so that the refrigeration units can be installed properly.
The EU has committed an additional €20 million through ECHO, increasing its contribution to the country at the time of the cyclone. This renewed commitment is part of the ongoing international aid efforts marking the beginning of the early recovery phase. The European Commission’s Development and Cooperation department has also contributed with €10 million for reconstruction. The main sectors which ECHO is considering to fund in the coming year are shelter, basic sanitation, and the refurbishing of some of the local health stations.
By Mathias Eick,
ECHO Regional Information Officer in Bangkok, Thailand