Editorial

Hunger

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The raid on Tuesday of the regional office of the Department of Social Welfare and Development in Davao City would not have happened had national and local officials been sensitive to the situation of the survivors of Typhoon “Pablo” from Compostela Valley and Davao Oriental. Complaining of hunger and neglect, the survivors belonging to the group Barug Katawhan forced their way into the office and made off with sacks of rice and other relief goods. (Spokesperson Karlos Trangia was reported as assiduously listing the stuff carted away, from 52 sacks of rice down to a single can of biscuits.) The police later wrested back the goods taken, resulting in injuries to a number of people.

Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman was subsequently quoted as saying that the raid and looting were “for propaganda”—but anyone would be moved to wonder: Who could possibly benefit from the purported publicity stunt? At any rate, she and her officials should have known that, allowed to fester, the situation could turn explosive, as it inevitably has. If no one else, the DSWD ought to be aware of what can happen when hunger drives people to desperate measures. In this disaster-prone country, a level of hunger resulting in raids of food warehouses and scuffles for relief goods is not unheard-of.

In the thousands, the survivors of the devastation wrought by Pablo in December had camped outside the DSWD compound since Monday to demand “genuine relief and rehabilitation services” from the government. The protest leaders said the people were demanding the immediate release of the 10,000 sacks of rice promised by Soliman in a dialogue in January. Soliman did not deny what she had promised, but said the typhoon survivors should have registered with the DSWD. The protesters said that since the dialogue, and even during their camp-out, no one from the agency had come to confer with them so they could register properly. “Why are they not giving these [relief goods] to us?” one wanted to know. “We are victims of Pablo. We are suffering. We are hungry.”

The encouraging development is that after a Wednesday-night meeting, the typhoon survivors agreed to stop their “occupy” protest action and the DSWD agreed to immediately look into their concerns and to streamline and fast-track relief distribution. It was also agreed that each camp would forgive and bear no grudge against the other. But for all that, Soliman, who was not present at the meeting, has announced that charges would be filed in court against the protest leaders for supposedly deceiving their comrades!

The episode should draw attention to the need to properly determine the extent of the damage wrought by Pablo, whether relief and rehabilitation efforts have truly benefited the survivors, and whether the monetary donations, including from overseas, have been used properly. Up to now, there does not seem to be a final tally of the depth of destruction that occurred. It is said that while the death tally has reached at least 900, some 600 remain missing. And with wind gusts of 200 miles per hour, record-breaking Pablo flattened valleys and farmlands in an agriculture-rich region that was once generally blessed with benign weather.

Even in the days immediately after the typhoon, scuffles for food were being reported and relief operations were being deemed grossly inadequate. In a grim foreshadowing of the Tuesday raid, a number of survivors complained of not being given relief goods unless they showed some identification. “But how can we possibly show a document when we failed to secure even our personal belongings from the flood?” said one.

Questions have also been raised about the DSWD’s management of the P18-billion calamity fund and international aid for the survivors. Many of the survivors were said to have received relief goods only twice in the last two months. There have been reports of overpriced bunkhouses and misuse of funds for cash-for-work programs. An Inquirer dispatch from Cateel, Davao Oriental, last Feb. 2 reported the survivors’ surprise at learning that each temporary shelter made of coconut lumber and plywood cost from P550,000 to P650,000. There are reports as well from indigenous groups in Baganga, Davao Oriental, of DSWD people selling relief packs for P200 each.

An immediate reassessment of procedure and priorities on the part of the DSWD is clearly in order. And also an acknowledgement by the social welfare secretary that this is hardly the time to be combative.

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