Danger lingers in Philippines

Even with storms gone, flood-related illnesses are rising as supplies shrink

The New York Times
Published: October 7, 2009

MANILA — More than a week after Typhoon Ketsana devastated the Philippines, large areas of the Manila metropolitan area and nearby provinces remain flooded, and residents face a host of other problems brought about by the lingering effects of the storm, according to relief and government officials.

Nearly half a million people were affected by flooding caused by Ketsana, with hundreds of thousands displaced, many of whom are now in evacuation centers, while others remain marooned in homes surrounded by floodwaters. Several areas will probably have no power for weeks, officials say.

The high floodwaters and uncollected debris, especially in hard-to-reach areas, have resulted in higher numbers of illnesses such as diarrhea, skin diseases, coughs and colds, according to relief agencies and the health department. The spread of mosquitoes and the diseases they carry, such as dengue fever and malaria, has also become a serious concern, they say.

While efforts are under way to alleviate the suffering of survivors, supplies and funding for relief operations are disappearing fast, prompting the United Nations to appeal to other countries for help, saying that the Philippines needs an additional $74 million to cope with the disaster.

The food supply is also under threat. Ketsana and another typhoon, Parma, that hit the Philippines over the weekend destroyed $128 million worth of crops, mostly rice, and the government has said it will have to import more rice to replenish stocks for next year.

Ketsana and Parma killed more than 300 people and damaged an estimated $57 million worth of property and infrastructure in addition to the damage to agriculture, according to the National Disaster Coordinating Council. In addition, many workers have been kept away from their jobs, according to Ibon Foundation, a nonprofit economic research group. The disaster “could cause lasting poverty and severe difficulties” for those affected, particularly the poor, the group said.

For the moment, the government and aid organizations are focusing on distributing relief goods — food, water, medicine, clothing — before tackling the clearance of debris and the rebuilding of infrastructure and homes. This means that it will take weeks, probably even months, for victims of the flooding to get back on their feet. The Metropolitan Manila Development Authority said it would take at least two months to clean the capital of tons of debris.

But funds and aid are in short supply.

The World Food Program, the United Nations agency, estimates that it alone would need $26 million more for its relief operations. Stephen Anderson, its country director for the Philippines, said it might be tougher now to get funds because of recent disasters in other countries like Indonesia, Vietnam and Samoa. “The donor community is stretched,” he said.

Mr. Anderson visited the town of Santa Cruz, in Laguna Province, south of Manila, over the weekend and saw whole communities still flooded and people choosing to remain in their inundated homes instead of in evacuation centers.

“The water was not receding,” Mr. Anderson said. “Clearly, there will be issues brought about by the water being stagnant,” he added. “We have to move quickly.”

Luc Picard, representative to the Philippines for Catholic Relief Services, said that the biggest problem facing the relief effort was the health of the survivors.

Children are particularly vulnerable in such situations, said Cherry Marcelo of the relief and charity group World Vision, whose projects include the creation of “child-friendly spaces” where child survivors are provided extra care — as well as protection against child abuse. “After a disaster, children are more vulnerable. In evacuation centers, where a lot of people all live together in one area, they need to be protected,” Ms. Marcelo said.

Mr. Anderson, of the World Food Program, said a major part of the effort now was to provide the equipment not just to move the trash but also to reach survivors who remained in their homes in remote places. He said two helicopters were to arrive on Wednesday to help in the program’s efforts as well as boats from Italy.

An area of concern for relief and rescue operations right now are the communities around the Laguna Lake, where water levels have not significantly decreased since the storm. Many of the towns surrounding the bay still have chest-deep water, Mr. Anderson said. “That’s the big challenge because of the people that are staying there. At some point, they will have to be relocated.”

On Monday, officials said that they would prohibit the rebuilding of the huts that used to block the waterways of the Manila metropolitan area, which officials say were a major reason why the floodwater rose so fast and hardly decreased in many areas. The illegal dumping of garbage and other waste has also been cited as a major reason for the blockage of waterways that were designed to ease flooding.

Jose Atienza, the environment secretary, said mayors of the 17 towns and cities that comprise Metro Manila should be sued for violating the country’s law on proper waste disposal. “They have allowed this pollution to happen, and that is why they have to answer for it,” Mr. Atienza said in an interview.

The disaster and its aftermath are prompting the government to rethink its policies and programs on disaster management, said Gilbert Teodoro, the secretary of defense, who also heads the National Disaster Coordinating Council.

“After the emotions will have subsided, we have to give an honest-to-goodness look at our systems, look at our infrastructure and determine areas where we can improve,” Mr. Teodoro said in an interview Tuesday. “There’s no choice, or people will suffer.”

Mr. Teodoro said that one of the proposals he was supporting was legislation that would allow town and city mayors to spend more money on disaster management, rather than wait for the national government to step in.

And because the armed services are almost always the first to get tapped to respond to disasters, there is a need to “reprioritize” a pending bill in Congress to modernize the Philippine military, he said. “The question now is, How much resources would we sacrifice that would go to capacity building in terms of disaster response?” Mr. Teodoro said. “It’s a judgment call.”

About Carlos H. Conde

Researcher at Human Rights Watch (@condeHRW @hrw_ph). Former journalist (NYT, IHT, among others).
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