The government’s “zero-casualty approach to managing” Typhoon “Ruby,” this year’s strongest typhoon so far, has earned the Philippines respect from the international community, prompting Malacañang to declare the country as evolving into “a culture of preparedness,” with local and national governments pulling together to avert catastrophes.
The congratulations and back-patting may be well-deserved, but should not detract from one glaring oversight that Ruby again brings to light: the absence of permanent evacuation sites.
We’ve said it before: Despite the Philippines’ vulnerability because of geography to a host of possible catastrophes—from earthquakes to volcanic eruptions to destructive typhoons that bring on fatal flooding and landslides—preparations have always been ad hoc and temporary, with local governments scrambling for resources just before disaster strikes.
In the case of Ruby, almost a million people were herded into evacuation sites hurriedly set up in sports stadiums and public schools that are ill-equipped to handle the basic needs of thousands of families.
Doubtless we’ve learned lessons from “Yolanda,” which displaced some 4 million people. And by now authorities should understand the reluctance of at-risk families to leave their homes for a descent into chaos, which is what hurriedly-set-up shelters often are.
According to Unicef, evacuation sites should have, among other things, the very basic components of WASH: water, sanitation and hygiene. But reports from the field show that these remain largely in the realm of the ideal. A case in point is the evacuation site of families imperiled by Mayon Volcano’s eruptions. There, at least 50,000 people are squeezed into 30 ad hoc shelters with erratic water supply, resulting in two-hour queues for water and prompting most of the evacuees to return home to take a much-needed bath or do their laundry.
The conditions are far from those defined by the internationally recognized Sphere standards, which set water queues at no more than 15 minutes, with one tap serving not more than 250 people at one time.
The lack of water is particularly dire in the toilet facilities of these sites. With too few toilets for the number of evacuees, the facilities soon break down and become unusable. It does not help that most toilets in the country’s public schools have no flush mechanism and running water.
As desperate evacuees improvise on means to answer nature’s call, evacuation sites are fouled up, giving rise to diseases. Sharing limited toilet facilities also results in a lack of privacy that exposes women and children to possible sexual abuse.
Using schools as evacuation centers have been a convenient solution to emergencies, mainly because school buildings are among the best constructed infrastructure in the community. But this ad hoc response creates problems for teachers, students and evacuees alike. While evacuees sorely need shelter from the storm and half-willingly suffer the lack of sanitation and privacy in the process, the children also need to be back in school, both for their education and their own protection.
For teachers and the schools, the main issue is the impact on the children’s academic performance, as they try to resume classes under stressful conditions. Another problem is that, under Philippine law, teachers are responsible for school premises, which are often left in disarray, with equipment missing and facilities destroyed, after a mass evacuation.
With the Philippines regularly visited by disasters, it makes economic, psychological and political sense to put up permanent evacuation sites. And they need not be fancy infrastructure requiring a big budget allocation. Every municipality has a covered court that can be stacked with mats, canned goods, batteries, emergency supplies and rescue equipment that can be kept under lock and key in normal times. Barangay officials can take charge of these facilities, thus decentralizing services and easing the burden of frazzled social service officials.
The Department of Health as well can set aside emergency medication that can be distributed to these sites along with water purification tablets, while the Department of Interior and Local Government can provide regular training to police and barangay officials on rescue procedures and keeping order.
If we are to move into a “culture of preparedness,” it makes sense to think long-term.
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