Yes, I accepted the scientific reports of global warming resulting in melting of the Ross Sea glaciers, the open water over the North Pole several years before expected. Yes, I saw the increased erosion and higher tides, as well as the increase in storms and natural disasters. It is easily viewed and accepted on television along with all the other sensationalism we are inundated with in a daily basis …… but will it really affect us? No, oh no, that is something that happens to others …. over there, not to us. Yes, we understand; yes, we accept that the problem is serious and that we need to do something. It is not something we can totally stop, but we can mitigate the impacts – yes, we understand ….. BUT DO WE? Bitter reality then struck me with a vengeance.
This story relates to Region VIII – the islands of Leyte, Samar and Bilaran.
November 8, 2013, the worst typhoon in recorded history bore down on our home town, Tacloban City, Leyte Province, Philippines. After sweeping aside and totally damagingGuiuan, Samar in its first impact with land, it seemed to gather even more strength and speed as it headed across Leyte Gulf for eastern Leyte and Tacloban. The second major impact with land was between Tanauan and Palo with sustained winds at 315 kph and gusts to 380kph, the highest winds recorded in history tearing up these communities, and bearing down into the 11 barangaysmaking up the Parish of San Jose, one of the small villagethat make up the 111 barangays of Tacloban. These history making winds were followed by the double strike of a storm surge of 5.5-6m in San Jose – almost two stories high. This surge increased in magnitude as it hit the harbour mouth and sailed up the estuary to San Juanico Bridge that joined the province of Samar to Leyte. This narrowing of the harbour created ahigher and faster surge of about 7.5 m – a full two stories high. Tanauan and Palo saw three waves build the storm surge with the last reputed to be higher than the coconut trees by a few survivors. Three to four hours and it was over for Region VIII – our home. The storm then carried on with only slightly less wind power, but no storm surge into Region V and VI making a further 16 landfallsand leaving behind a swath of destruction from the very high winds.
The rains and winds abated momentarily to the aftermathleaving more than just plastic found high in the trees. The body count started with an initial estimate for TaclobanCity alone estimated at 10,000.The official body count by the national Government stopped at 6100 and official government reports were directed to use the phrase ‘over 6100 casualties’ without further reference to actual numbers. Now eleven weeks later what do we have – still an average of three new bodies being found daily in Tacloban and surrounding area.
Why did so many people die?Very few people understood what was meant by ‘storm surge’, even the educated. The national meteorological agency, PAGASA, fully aware and experienced with the many annual typhoons of the past, appeared to discount the CNN warnings of the potential power of the storm surge and power of the wind which was predicted to be the highest in recorded history. Eventually, on the evening of 7th November, approximately 12 hours before the storm hit,PAGASAmade an announcement through the President of the Republic that it was going to be a very dangerous storm. Evacuation centres had already been chosen, unfortunately many having been selected near, or next to the sea by officials neither aware of the power of the winds to come, nor the knowledge of the impact of a storm surge up to 7.5 m with the potential power and damage of a tsunami. Officially in the Philippines, this storm was never rated as a super storm or super typhoon although CNN and other international media had been calling it such for almost a week. A few weeks after the Typhoon Haiyan, the Government did finally officially allow recognition of it as a super typhoon and a national disaster. A question which immediately comes to mind – could PAGASAhave saved lives if the typhoon and meaning of storm surge was explained better, or it was explained that it was like a tsunami, or was the lackadaisical attitude of the people with respect to typhoon a cultural factor that could not have been changed?
What was the aftermath? Loss of lives, tremendous loss of basic infrastructure and services such as housing, water and electricity, and loss of the two basic staples of food security – fisheries and agriculture. The food production sector and food security were the most immediate concerns for four reasons:
1. Relief food would normally last for approximately one to two months and the president declared that food relief would not be required after end of December;
2. If the farmers missed the planting seasons for rice (December – January) and basic vegetable and corn crops (January) then these key staples would not be available locally until Juneor July at the earliest, and for the main staple food product - rain-fed rice, the next season was for September, thus threatening the onset of food shortages;
3. Without the fishermen back in their boats and fishing, and the fish farms operational with infrastructure support systems (ice plants, landing sites and basic local fish markets) operating, the potential to supply the second most important food product – fish was critical, thus further increasing the potential of critical food shortages;
4. Loss of housing, livelihoods and key food crops, plus the total loss of 265,000 ha of coconut trees exacerbated the impact on food shortages with the coconut impacting over 1 million coconut farmers who would not see a coconut harvest for the next 5-7 years while the coconuts reached maturity.
The threatening negative impact on future food security and the basic survival for farmers, especially coconut farmers, and those dependent upon farm and fish products was increasing incrementally with the receipt of the damage reports.
Farmers lost 63,234 ha. of rice crops, 265,000 ha of coconut farms including 33 million trees damaged with 15 million totally destroyed; 3,800ha of corn fields and infrastructure with a total estimated value of some Php18.85 billion of which Php16 billion was coconut losses negatively impacting future survival of over 1.1 million farmers. In fisheries the total loss of more than 9,500 small bancas; more than 9,300 motorized bancas, 54 commercial vessels, and 27,000 fishing gears coupled with several thousands of fish cages in the 9 mariculture parks and all hatcheries destroyed, the loss of 10 ice plants, 45 landing stations and local fish markets, combined with the infrastructure and impact on some 30,000 fisher families was valued at 1.68 billion Pp. And being the really wet season – the rains continued, and continued ………..
The international donor community rallied immediately to the national disaster, assisting with damage assessments and setting up emergency offices in the three regions hit by the disaster. The national government was still reeling from the extent of the damage and were slow to accept the fact that it was a calamity of such proportions that nothing could have prepared the area hit by the track of the typhoon, except perhaps a clearer realization of the potential disaster of such a super storm.The United Nations agencies set up the UN Command Centre in Tacloban and with the International Non-Government Organizations (INGOs), commenced the hard field work of damage assessment, collection of the perished and assisting the survivors. It became clear in the first week that the double whammy of the high winds and storm surge made eastern, southern and western Samar and eastern Leyte the hardest hit areas of the typhoon. The UN Cluster system for coordination of all activities and inputs of UN and INGOs was quickly set up to address – food security (co-chaired by World Food Programme and FAO of the UN); shelter; security; health; gender, etc., became active immediately. These were later matched by the Government clusters which were organized slightly differently and incorporated a mix of the UN clusters, but these were coordinated under the expert eye of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
There was an initial directive that all food relief operations would cease at the end of December and all organizations were to move towards rehabilitation as soon as possible. In early January, it was realized that food reliefoperations would need to continue to the most vulnerable families for the next few months. At the end of December, basic clean up on all major roads and streets in the affected area of Region VIII was well organized. Electricity was restored in the city centre and some areas in Palo, but in some city barangays it would not be available for months, one estimate being May. Stores are beginning to open and evacuees were beginning to return home to Tacloban and the region to rebuild.
Food Security remained a growing concern. World Food Programme (WFP) and the Department of Social Welfare (DSWD)of the Philippines worked tirelessly to provide relief food packages to the government and communities.FAOs focus was on the potential threat of severe food shortages if farmers could not meet their planting season in December/January for rice, and January for corn and vegetables. Without this planting season – basic rice, corn would not be available until May or even September with critical food shortages to be expected. Moreover, without fishermen back in their boats, the food security problem became more critical. Targets for rice replanting were set for Region VIII with 50% of farmers normally planting in December. This meant that almost 30,000 ha of damaged rice fields had to be reseeded by end of December. FAO started rice seed distribution on 10 December and by year end with the assistance of OXFAM, were able to be just under the 30,000 ha – some 27-28,000 ha were addressed. The pressure and efforts cannot weaken – the unceasing daily heavy rains are continuing to make building back very difficult, the infrastructure damage made offices and accommodation a challenge for donor agencies, and the lack of basic electricity and potable water in many areas was exacerbating the situation with people flocking to the centres where such services existed. These acts in themselves greatly increase the peace and security and food security issues.BUT, progress was being made, albeit slowly. Tindog (Stand Up) Region VIII – we will survive. It will take time.
Many lessons were learned, the harshest being that even in disasters, political influence, partisanship, ignorance, arrogance, enmities and corruption surface to muddy the waters. This resulted in an unforgiveable disrespect for those who perished and their families, many of these individuals labelled as debris to meet government political agenda. Such political partisanship and later internal government corruption in the re-routing of relief goods factor in to slow the rate of recovery. One such example is the ongoing investigation in the temporary shelters being built. The ICRC built an adequate temporary accommodation for a family of five at about 17 sq m for 30,000 PhP per unit while government built bunk house accommodation at 8.6 sq m per the same size family cost well over 150,000 per unit. It begs the question as to how can a responsible government allow such a thing to happen? And that is only part of the corruption story unfolding as we write.
These concerns and challenges to future development, mitigation of natural disasterscan only be resolved through good memories at future elections and the selection of candidates who have the country good at heart and not self-enrichment and self-aggrandisement. I can only wish my fellow Region VIII residents and colleagues long memories, patience and learning that work in recovery from natural disasters is no time for politics, they are national calamities where all are equally responsible to care for neighbours and each other regardless of faith, colour, gender or political persuasion. Unfortunately, this disaster brought out the worst of the political workings and attitudes in the Philippines. However, the people will rebuild – better we hope.
And YES, now I understand the impact of climate change, ……, it took such a disaster AT MY HOME, WITH ME ON THE GROUND AND IN THE FIELD, to wake up the dullness that comes from watching the continued televised damage and disaster sensationalism. I can now say – people it is real, it is not just a picture. We need to realize the fact that even if we are careful and respect our planet now – it is too late, we can only prepare ourselves to mitigate the impacts. And now, eleven weeks later as I write this blog, what do we see: below freezing cold in all North America; 42+C° for the tennis tournaments in Australia, massive flooding in Indoneisa, killer drought in Los Angeles, cyclone in Tonga- the world is rapidly spinning out of control – can we, or do we have time to adapt and mitigate these climate change impacts for our very survival?
Let us look at the next part of this blog. Its intent will be to investigate what we can do, especially as archipelagic States to mitigate the future negative impacts from natural disasters and climate change.
Resident, Barangay 83B
San Jose, Tacloban
It is encouraging that now the President is recognizing that this is a ‘national’ disaster of proportions not seen before, and he is asking relief organizations to continue the relief food until May due to possible food shortages and the inability of the local communities to once again provide for themselves.