In the Philippines, a relief effort of giant proportions and fiendishly complicated logistics is under way
Aerial view of the devastated city of Tacloban. © IOM 2013 (Photo by Conrad Navidad)
By Leonard Doyle
With banner headlines already decrying the slow pace of aid in the Philippines, there was palpable relief when, at a packed briefing for aid agencies, it was announced that piped water had been restored in Tacloban, the city brought to its knees by Typhoon Haiyan.
"This is good news. By 3pm, 150,000 people were getting water at home," said Luiza Carvalho, the UN's top official in the Philippines. "There are lots of leaks in the pipes still but that's the least of the problems. By Monday we hope to get 100% of the city's nine municipalities with access to running, drinkable water."
There was more good news about the stepped-up pace of relief thanks to a coalition of the willing that has pitched in. Canada, Britain, the US, Japan and Norway have already put ships, planes, helicopters and trucks at the disposal of the huge relief effort.
Nobody wishes to voice it openly, but looming over this mobilisation is the unhappy memory of post-earthquake Haiti. Four years ago next January, a noble ambition to "build back better", coupled with an outpouring of generosity from ordinary people, somehow failed to transform a broken country. The generosity is in evidence once more for the Philippines: Britain's Disasters Emergency Committee appeal has already topped £33m.
Those who have been working day and night to get food, shelter and other necessities into the hands of four million people made homeless by the disaster know it's only a matter of time before some in the media shoot first and ask questions later. No humanitarian agency or international NGO wishes to be in the cross-hairs of accusations of incompetence or mismanagement when lives are at stake.
A foretaste came in the early hours of Saturday morning when the normally reliable Wall Street Journal circulated an email claiming that all hell was breaking loose in Tacloban.
"I am getting security updates on Tacloban – do NOT go there! Care, UN and gov of Philq [sic] pulling out its own people can't guarantee safety," the email stated. "Insurgents have arrived, jail break during storm. Reports ambushes, rapes, murders …"
The email caused consternation at UN headquarters as security officials scrambled to check it out and confirm that it was false in every respect.
Minds are now focused on ensuring that the response to Typhoon Haiyan is as fast as can possibly be achieved in the circumstances. Resources, both financial and in kind, are pouring in. Lady Amos, the UN's humanitarian chief, told donors last week that the priority was getting aid on the ground as quickly as possible, even if that meant acting with elevated risks. Taking some risk now was the way to ensure that lives were saved and the situation remained stable enough to start the process of recovery.
Just back from a lightning visit to Tacloban to see the devastation first hand last week, Lady Amos looked across the table at some of the most experienced aid workers you will find anywhere and said: "Our ambition needs to be much greater. I want you to think 10 times bigger than you are already thinking – this is massive and I cannot overstate it." But she also stressed the need for planning and co-ordination to avoid chaos and wasted efforts.
Less than a week into the crisis, the strain of fighting against bottlenecks that refuse to budge is showing among veterans of relief operations. One after another they admitted that getting supplies on the ground was proving a challenge. There were the mile-long traffic jams as trucks waited to board overtaxed ferries. There were security incidents, real or exaggerated, that were causing delays and then there was the complicated geography of this beautiful archipelago, where transport links are not well, if at all, mapped and it takes local knowledge to find a workaround to a bottleneck.
In the early hours of Saturday a column of relief trucks from the International Organization for Migration was arriving at ground zero of the typhoon's most deadly landfalls, part of a supply chain to rival a small army's. Fiendishly complicated logistics lie behind the first of many deliveries of more than 30,000 bedrolls and blankets, many thousands of plastic tarpaulins for families to create shelters, and thousands of corrugated-iron sheets to provide protection from the sun and rain.
Also aboard the trucks are simple kits to help families start cooking and washing hygienically. Then there is the debris clearance equipment, all on its way to Tacloban and other blasted cities, such as Roxas and Ormoc. And that's just for openers.
One of the next steps is to get money into people's hands, paying them to use local native materials, including lumber from fallen coconut trees, to start rebuilding their homes. The ever-expanding pipeline bringing aid to areas devastated by the typhoon is being run by experienced logisticians. They are pulling together goods purchased and donations in kind from many different sources, so that when they are handed out, people can rebuild by themselves.
Before anything long-term can be achieved, individual families must be registered and their needs assessed. It often appears to be a slow-moving and overly cautious process, as the registration captures numerous details, including the location of each family. The process will be speeded up by allowing people to self-report, once the mobile phone networks are back up. Volunteer groups will fan out across the country, recording the needs of the homeless and then feeding it back to databases for rapid analysis and the dispatch of aid to the most vulnerable.
Christy Marfil, 43, was aboard one of the IOM trucks that had made the 24-hour journey by road and ferry to bring aid to Tacloban when she ran into something she never imagined seeing in her native land: a mile-long column of exhausted people, who had been on the road for days. They had walked away from the smashed city, rather than wait for aid to arrive, amid the sense of insecurity and stench of death.
Despite a massive international and national aid operation, the calamity that has convulsed the Pacific nation for the past week is far from subsiding. The exhausted, traumatised survivors were trudging by foot to escape the mayhem of a city that was 90% destroyed by the typhoon and where hope has died for many.
"People are leaving Tacloban because word has gone around to get out of town and live with relatives and friends in Cebu or Manila," said Christy, who is part of IOM's relief effort, which now spans a rebellion in Zamboanga, an earthquake in Bohol and the aftermath of last year's Typhoon Bopha in Mindanao.
She interviewed Risa, a high-school student, who said that her family was saved from the deluge because they had a two-storey house, but the rest of her neighbours and classmates had died. Their dead bodies remain in the area.
"Risa's family walked for two hours just to cross Tacloban and hitched rides on buses to get to a port, where they found a boat that would take them away. They slept out in the open on the pier, since they were without money and the banks had closed.
"Now she worries about not getting back to school any more," said Christy. "She's not even sure if their family will return to Tacloban. They do not feel safe in Tacloban."
Despite an exodus of desperate people from Tacloban, many residents are staying. They line up patiently every day for the packages of aid being delivered by a constellation of governments using military airlifts and, increasingly, trucks, coming in by land and sea. We are doing our best not to let them down.
People of the Philippines like to consider themselves natural-disaster veterans. As the writer Jessica Zafra put it last week in the New Yorker: "We have earthquakes: in October, a 7.2-magnitude quake levelled parts of Bohol province, including massive stone churches that were hundreds of years old. We have volcanoes: after lying dormant for centuries, Mount Pinatubo, in Luzon, erupted in 1991, spewing so much ash into the atmosphere that global temperatures fell almost a degree. We have typhoons: up to 20 each year, which are growing more ferocious. These days, the sight of a street in Manila under four feet of water is no longer a source of amazement, just an inconvenience."
But what took everyone by surprise this time, even the phlegmatic Filipinos, was the ferocity of Typhoon Haiyan and the combination of wind and tsunami-like waves that came crashing over roofs, smashing their simple structures and carrying off loved ones to their deaths.
What's changed is the ferocity of the storms the country is now enduring. They are striking not only the rugged islands of the north, where stone houses easily resist typhoons, but cities such as Tacloban, so tucked away that they considered themselves immune to big storms rolling in off the Pacific.
Almost exactly a year ago, in another harbinger of climate change and the carnage it is wreaking among poor people, Typhoon Bopha carved through Mindanao to the south, carrying off 2,000 people to their deaths. It happened in a place so unused to typhoons that people crowd their nipa houses along beaches and flood plains.
Spokesman for the International Organization for Migration in Manila
Tel: +63 (0) 917 890 8785