What challenges does Typhoon Haiyan pose for aid agencies?

by Astrid Zweynert | azweynert | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 14 November 2013 17:39 GMT

Soldiers move relief goods arriving at Tacloban airport, central Philippines after typhoon Haiyan, as survivors grow desperate. Photo November 14, 2013, REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

A lack of stocks because of other recent disasters in the country, the vast scale of destruction and the total disruption of local communities slowed the response to Typhoon Haiyan, aid agency experts said in our online debate

This was the question we put to six aid experts in an online debate on Thursday. They summed them up as: access, logistics, communications and security - the usual issues in coping with a big disaster – and agreed that the scale of the destruction wrought by Typhoon Haiyan makes it all the harder to respond.

"I think it’s hard to overestimate the scale of this disaster," said Leonard Doyle, head of digital media at the International Organisation of Migration, which is setting up camps for people driven from their homes. "The aid response will have to be far bigger than most people are prepared to imagine at the moment."

More than 544,600 people have been displaced and nearly 12 percent of the population affected, according to the United Nations. Many areas still have not received any aid.

"The geographical area hit by Haiyan is extensive and includes several islands, multiplying the potential for logistics constraints on operations." said Kirsten Mildren, Asia Pacific information officer at UN OCHA. "The level of destruction - this typhoon wiped out all key infrastructure - making it impossible to bring supplies in. Lastly, the local authorities - the first responders - were knocked out as well."

"This is going to be a long road to recovery. The healing will take some time, and they will need sustained support from the international community."

"The infrastructure is appalling and logistics are very difficult," said Alan Glasgow, who heads the Haiyan response team at GOAL.  "An established partner network and a rapidly deployed team on the ground has been GOAL's approach so far."

Panellists said some media reports about security concerns had been somewhat overblown and aid delivery had not been seriously impacted.

"Apart from one incident which lead to deaths the situation is remarkably calm, with people waiting patiently for aid and water,” said Doyle, citing a report from the U.N. Department of Safety and Security.


Patrick Fuller, Asia Pacific spokesman at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), said local stocks of disaster relief items were exhausted because there had been numerous emergencies in the Philippines recently. 

He said the Red Cross had enough volunteers and staff but lacked stocks because aid agencies are already helping survivors of the Bohol earthquake last month, which displaced almost 400,000 people, and those affected by a rebellion in Zamboanga in the Mindanao region.

The airport at Tacloban can handle only a limited volume of traffic so a pipeline into different ports in Leyte needs to be established, Fuller said.

Fuller said that in many places health services were not functioning.

"Medical centres and their staff have been directly affected, so the Red Cross is bringing in two fully equipped basic health units to set up in areas that are not being serviced," he said.  "These are fully staffed and equipped. Poor nutrition, coupled with dirty water and trauma is a recipe for a secondary health disaster."

"The needs are extraordinary, there are now 3 million displaced people in the country, when we combine the enormous impact of Typhoon Haiyan with the earthquake in Bohol and the rebellion in Zamboanga," said the IOM's Doyle.

Raul Rodriguez, head of disaster response at Plan International, said the aid agency had distributed relief kits for 2,000 people and planned to provide 6,000 families with WASH kits, shelter kits and clean water in the next 24 hours.

"To speed up the response, we are looking to do airlifts to distribute the relief to remote areas, including Eastern Samar, Western Samar and north of Cebu," said Rodriguez.

Rebuilding the devastated areas will take time, not least because massive amounts of debris need to be cleared first, said UN OCHA's Mildren.

"People are building makeshift accommodation as they have no other choice at the moment," Mildren said. "And there is always the possibility that makeshift turns into something more permanent, so providing them with better building supplies is one solution."


Given that the Philippines is so disaster-prone, what can be done to help survivors of such events in the future faster and more efficiently?

"In some ways we are sleep-walking into disasters like this one," said Doyle.  "Poor people live in shanty towns and villages crowded along the coast while more extreme and unpredictable weather hammers the country.

"Coastal towns are increasingly vulnerable for families crowded together. If we ignore that reality at a time of climate change, then we are sleep-walking into future disasters even as life saving aid is being brought in today to help the displaced.

With disasters such as Typhoon Haiyan forecast to happen more often due to climate change, aid agencies need to focus even more on preparedness – as do governments, panellists agreed.

"Climate change makes it likely that we will see more unpredictable and unprecedented weather events so we do need to rethink our preparedness," said Isabelle Ereñeta, education officer of ChildFund in the Philippines.

"For many years, our priority (has been) on building community resilience because this is the way to reduce the impact of the disaster," said Rodriguez at Plan. "Also, the first responder during the first 72 hours of this kind of disaster is the community itself. If they are well prepared, more lives will be saved."

OCHA's director of operations, John Ging, said on Wednesday that "we are chronically underfunded as a humanitarian community, and when these natural disasters hit us suddenly, we don’t have the logistics or the supplies to hand."

Getting funding for emergency responses in the Philippines has been particularly challenging because it is not seen as a poor country, despite a massive rich-poor gap, the panellists said. 

"It's not been a good year for Philippines and until now we have struggled to attract funding as Philippines is perceived as a middle income country," said Fuller. 

"It's going to be important to ensure that a sense of normalcy returns sooner rather than later, that livelihoods are provided, that small shops get stock to reopen and that children get to school," said IOM's Doyle.

Making sure that children don't miss out on education is a crucial first step.

"We need to plan for temporary learning spaces so children can continue to learn as we rebuild," said ChildFund's Ereñeta.

ChildFund has set up child-centred spaces, for example in Roxas City, Capiz.

"We're working to set up more of these in the hardest-hit areas to provide a safe place and much needed psychosocial support for kids," said Ereñeta.

"We know a lot of schools were destroyed and we need to put measures in place to get children back into education," said Rodriguez at Plan. "This will take some time. We are planning to provide access to informal education at the shelter centres, with topics focusing on a peaceful environment, hygiene behaviour as well as games and psycho-social support.

More quotes from the online debate in our Q+A

For latest news, pictures and videos about the situation in the Philippines visit our live blog.


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