Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines, Population

PHILIPPINES: A Year On, Typhoon Ketsana’s Lessons Far from Forgotten

Kara Santos

MANILA, Sep 24 2010 (IPS) - Filipinos are used to having their country soaked by rain six months of the year, but these days worry is on many faces whenever raindrops start falling.

Survivors of Typhoon Ketsana remember the loved ones they lost on the 1st year anniversary of the disaster. Credit: Kara Santos/IPS

Survivors of Typhoon Ketsana remember the loved ones they lost on the 1st year anniversary of the disaster. Credit: Kara Santos/IPS

This is even though many of them have managed to rebuild their lives a year after twin typhoons destroyed thousands of homes across the main island of Luzon, and killed nearly 1,000 people in this South-east Asian country of 94 million people.

On Sep. 26, 2009, Typhoon Ketsana hit the Philippines, and it later unleashed its fury in neighbouring South-east Asian countries. In a matter of hours, portions of Metro Manila and towns the south and north of it inundated in floodwaters so deep they swallowed even two- storey dwellings.

Known locally as Ondoy, the typhoon dumped the heaviest rainfall in history experienced in Metro Manila, transforming streets into raging rivers. In some rural areas, the floodwaters reached a record level of more than six metres high.

Nora Abella recalls that her husband Raymond and their five children had to flee their home in the middle of the night.

Massive floods caused by the typhoon’s heavy rains had put them in danger of drowning as they slept in their house in Santa Cruz, the capital town of Laguna province, some 87 kilometres from Manila.

“I woke up to see my five children putting on their jackets and getting ready to move out of the house,” she recalls. “While my husband and I were fast asleep, the children were restless and awake, checking the water just outside our house.”

Ketsana would continue on its path of destruction in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand, killing hundreds more and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless.

Back in the Philippines, the Abellas had to stay in an evacuation centre with hundreds of other people for three months. On the heels of Ketsana had been Typhoon Pama (known as Pepeng in the Philippines), which while less destructive added more havoc to already devastated communities. The day after Christmas, the Abellas returned home, only to find their house still littered with debris. Since the water pump was damaged, they did not have a source of clean water.

But communities across Luzon that had been devastated by the floods had picked themselves up almost as soon as the waters receded, thanks to many volunteers who extended help, from donations of food, clothing, and cash, to group clean-ups of streets and even households.

Humanitarian groups like Oxfam and World Vision stepped in for long-term initiatives aimed not only at helping communities recover, but to also make them more prepared for disaster.

“There’s wisdom in stocking supplies ahead of time so we are not caught off-guard when disasters like Ketsana hit again,” Boris Joaquin, head of donor engagement of World Vision, a global relief organisation, says.

Locally, World Vision sets aside a portion of the donations it gets towards a calamity fund and actively raises funds to provide humanitarian assistance for disaster preparedness, instead of giving just one-time donations.

Oxfam, meanwhile, supported household-water treatment, and built emergency communal latrines and washing areas, plus elevated walkways over the floodwaters, according to one post-disaster assessment report.

“We began working with the residents when they were in the evacuation centre and transitional sites, and continued to support them after they returned home or in the relocation sites,” says Oxfam Country Programme Manager Snehal Soneji.

Oxfam also made it a point to address the problem of having constant clean water, which it considers vital to a community’s recovery.

“Often, very little attention is given to the areas of water, sanitation, and hygiene despite the challenges they pose to the people’s lifeline,” Soneji says, noting the rising number of dengue cases in the Philippines.

Nora Abella thus is now a member of the local water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) committee, which coordinates with the local community to help organise the maintenance of the communal and household toilets, monitor the use of water pumps, and assist in distribution of basic items. These committees ensure that the work continues long after the disaster strikes.

The National Disaster Risk Reduction Council (NDRRC), for its part, says it is now more prepared to deal with disasters, holding massive information drives in the aftermath of typhoons Ketsana and Pama.

NDRRC Executive Director retired Army Gen. Benito Ramos says that new equipment to provide advance warnings, food and non-food items including medicine and relief goods, have been pre-positioned in key areas in the country.

“We should brace for the worst, especially during the month of October when strong typhoons usually hit the country,” Ramos said in a press conference here recently. “If there is a typhoon, let’s hope it’s not it’s as strong as Ondoy.”

Oxfam’s Soneji, though, believes stronger measures need to be in place to ensure that vulnerable communities are prepared.

“Extreme weather events such as stronger typhoons, increased amounts of rainfall and severe droughts will be the norm unless runaway growth of global carbon emissions is stopped,” he says. “The fury that Typhoon Ondoy unleashed last year is (just) a sign of things to come.”

He calls for a national defense against climate change. “More than roads and bridges with the names of her congressman posted on it, Nora and her family need government leaders who have the vision for resilient communities, beyond the next electoral exercise,” Soneji added.

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