Beyond Violence 

Caught Between Frustration and Hope- The Philippines One Year After Typhoon Yolanda

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On November 8 2014, one year after Typhoon Yolanda hit the Visayas Region of the Philippines, more than 10,000 people gathered in the streets of Tacloban, on Leyte Island. In this city, the most devastated by Yolanda in 2013, one can still feel the people´s anger and frustration. Many of the protesters were covered in mud, remembering the shocking force of Yolanda and showing solidarity with those who lost a beloved friend or family member. The movement “Duluk han Katawhan” (which translates as “People Surge”), is a metaphor for people “flooding” the streets and raising their voices to demand justice , as well as uniting those who accuse the Philippine government of negligent disaster management. “The devastation wrought by super typhoon Yolanda may have been horrific, but more horrendous is the Noynoy Aquino government’s ineptness in addressing the wellbeing of its people”, states the alliance on their website.

At first sight however, the government´s “ineptness” is not immediately obvious. Shortly after Yolanda arrived in the central parts of the Philippines, killing more than 6000 people and displacing 4.1 million families, the government responded by creating the Office of the Presidential Assistant for Rehabilitation and Recovery (OPARR) which is in charge of developing all short and long term rehabilitation and recovery strategies.

On December 18, 2013 the Philippine government launched a four-year programme named “Reconstruction Assistance on Yolanda”(RAY) The requested $8.2 billion for the implementation of the RAY programme was mainly meant for reconstruction projects in housing, education and agriculture and the development of preventive measures to increase resilience to natural disasters. In November 2014, one year after the typhoon, President Aquino signed another Comprehensive Action Plan, promising $ 3.9 billion to 25,000 projects that were supposed to help Yolanda’s victims. Under the slogan and principle of “Building Back Better”, those in the affected areas were even meant to benefit from an increased quality of life greater than pre-Yolanda levels.

Nevertheless, despite the ambitious plans of the Philippine government one cannot ignore the 10,000 people who protested on the first anniversary of the typhoon. Their anger and desperation derives from their daily struggle to regain a normal life. One year after the catastrophe many displaced families are still living in tents, which would not withstand another typhoon. On Samar and Leyte Island most of the rural population is dependent on harvesting coconuts and fishing to survive, but after the typhoon there are barely any coconut trees or fishing boats left and it is also impossible for families to meet their basic needs. The lack of adequate housing, food and daily routine creates a vicious and tense atmosphere. In the chaotic following the typhoon, prices for basic supplies have risen significantly and the security situation, especially for women, has become very fragile.

“Where is the government in all of this?” is the question that many typhoon survivors have been asking for more than a year now. For the alliance of “People Surge”, the government’s actions after the typhoon exemplified its gross incompetence in ensuring the safety and welfare of those affected. Fundamental human rights such as the right to housing, food, livelihood and social services are far from being fulfilled. In 18 immediate and long-term demands “People Surge” lists the actions needed to respond to the needs of the rural and urban poor populations that are still struggling due to the typhoon. At the top of their demands is the distribution of relief assistance and financial support to small households. Furthermore the government must implement price controls and access to basic social services. Reading the demands it is clear that this broad alliance of all sectors of Filipino society want the government to focus on the needs and the empowerment of the rural and urban poor.

In all fairness, it must be said that this is not an easy task. Typhoon Yolanda was the deadliest natural disaster ever recorded in the Philippines and within a few days it left an estimated 11.5 million people in need of immediate help. However, while the delayed arrival and insufficient coordination of relief assistance immediately after the typhoon might be justified by its scale, the slow pace of rehabilitation and reconstruction one year later reveals more serious political and social issues.

Although President Benigno Aquino promised full transparency in the implementation of any reconstruction actions, international press articles reported that a large amount of the international donations has ended up in the wrong hands. Corruption has always been a big issue in the Philippines and has impacted which funds can be used for emergency responses as well as the development of preventive measures against natural disasters.

In addition to all of this, the government´s “no-build-zone” policy, which bans the construction of all housing facilities less than 40 metres from the shore line is highly questionable. Originally meant to protect the population in case of another typhoon, the policy has displaced thousands of families, as well as causing enforced evictions and land grabbing. For instance, on the small island of Sicogon, Iloilo, 1300 displaced families have been prevented from returning to their land due to the “no-build zone” policy. Ironically Sicogon seems to be safe enough for tourists as the Sicogon Development Corporation “Sideco” plans to buy the 1600 hectare Island and turn it into a premium tourism resort. This case is just one example of big businesses and landlords that are somehow able to take advantage of the typhoon rehabilitation plans, but it clearly shows how difficult it is to “build back better” if inequality, corruption and social injustice have been a reality long before Yolanda devastated the Philippines.

A year after Yolanda, many Filipinos were placing all their hopes on Pope Francis’ visit in mid-January instead of trusting the government´s rehabilitation plans. “The Holy Father is renowned for being a progressive reformer with his various pronouncements and social teachings for the poor and the oppressed”, explains Dr. Efleda Bautista, chairperson of the “People Surge” movement. “We hope Pope Francis will surprise the world once again by breaking these boundaries between him and us survivors, and give voice to our still unheard cries for justice and change.”

No matter what strengthens their hope and will to survive, what Filipinos really need for the coming years is a reliable warning system and effective measures to contain the damage of future typhoons. The link between global warming and extreme weather conditions such as super typhoon like Yolanda, is sufficiently proven. If one is to believe the predictions, Yolanda is not the last super typhoon that will challenge the Philippine people´s survival.

Written by M. Gahl and published on 21-January-2015

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