A competition of emergencies
BOHOL—With the recent spate of emergencies hitting the Philippines, there’s a need for it to be smarter and think more about how to approach the scale-breaking disasters we should come to expect. But we need to start thinking not just about what happens during a disaster but also the ramifications. A disaster doesn’t truly become a disaster unless the response falls short of what the affected people need.
Not being able to prepare and respond well to disasters actually causes another issue that hampers response and recovery. This is what I call a competition of emergencies. What we’re not realizing is that the inability to address the increasing frequency and scale of disasters is the perfect setup for disaster. That we’re not preparing on a scale proportionate to the disasters we are experiencing just means that we will continue to respond and play catch-up with the rotation of disasters.
The world is wonderfully generous about Supertyphoon “Yolanda.” Simply put, the imbalance of resources from Yolanda to Bohol could mean that four-fifths of those affected by the typhoon are facing a longer period of recovery and may face alternative (sometimes negative) ways of coping without the assistance needed to kick-start their progress. It could mean living in tents for a longer period, an increased vulnerability and risk of protection issues from living in temporary shelters, or an inability to restart livelihoods. It could mean a big step back for Bohol.
In a natural disaster, the immediate assumption is that the most vulnerable are stripped of basic needs: food, water, shelter. There’s a race against time to deliver aid that would meet the big three. We in humanitarian agencies have been working in emergencies for so long that we’ve broken down aid to food packs, hygiene kits, water kits and emergency shelter.
What happened in earthquake-struck Bohol was that agencies working on the ground were still trying to meet these needs when Yolanda hit, and then markets instantly dried up. Cebu was the nearest large market and logisticians trying to procure supplies were shut out. Supplies coming into Tagbilaran were suddenly diverted to Cebu hubs because the needs were bigger and more immediate in Yolanda-hit cities with zero systems.
Granting that you can purchase the right number of aid kits needed, there’s still the problem of getting these in. What happened in Yolanda is that places like Leyte had no local suppliers. There were no vehicles, no fuel, no trucking. Everything had to be sourced from the outside. You’re scrambling to get the next available vehicle—but you’re not the only organization trying to do so. Suddenly, suppliers who could bring relief in were in high demand and could control prices. It was costing up to P10,000 just to rent a vehicle. Trucking companies were canceling arrangements in the middle of the night, right before a distribution, because of higher bids worth more money.
Hand in hand with resources is the human element. In the humanitarian field, only a relatively small number of people are equipped to work in emergencies. Finding someone to do emergency work means finding a person with the technical expertise, knowledge and experience not just to respond but also to figure out how to go beyond response and move toward recovery as quickly as possible. Immediately after Yolanda, experienced humanitarian workers were being pulled out of Bohol to work where the need was greater.
In Bohol, we’re seeing issues crop up again because needs are overlooked. People don’t know how long they will stay in their current living conditions. Livelihoods are still a question mark. As for Zamboanga, people are still in evacuation centers. Incredibly distressing issues on gender-based violence and protection are rising. There are reports of prostitution, involving even children for a tiny bit of money. But even with these issues cropping up, who is left to cover them?
Recognizing that a competition of emergencies can happen is important because the pressure of it consistently happening should add to how we understand the scale of preparing for disasters. Here are some things we should consider to acknowledge this problem:
• Capacity-building and going local. We know that we are a country overrun by disasters and that it’s going to get worse. And we know we don’t have the personnel to respond to this on our own. We need to spread the knowledge, the capacity, around, so if we ourselves can’t do it, then we know others can.
• Understanding disasters and scale. Yolanda was a situation where people were warned of storm surges without understanding what the term meant. When we’re hit by a usual disaster like a typhoon but don’t know every possible consequence of it, it means we won’t be able to understand the scale. If we know what kind of disaster we’ll be hit with, then we have to know what secondary issues could also possibly happen.
• Preparing, not for response, but for preparedness. When the government talks about zero casualties, red alerts, stockpiles and standby funds, these are all still about response. When talking about preparedness, we should talk about understanding that a disaster doesn’t just mean the response that must follow but the steps we must take to cut the risks of it being greater when it actually hits.
• Time for the Philippines to take risks. When our country tops disaster lists but can’t get recognition that we’re being affected by climate change, we should be the trailblazers. We’ve started things like the People’s Survival Fund on climate financing, which is supposed to put P1 billion toward adapting our communities to climate change and disasters. We’ve got the Climate Change Act and the Philippine DRRM Act, both excellent laws, but still lacking in an understanding of them beyond rote implementation. Until we fully implement these laws as envisioned, without taking shortcuts, we’ll be shortchanging ourselves in how we deal with disasters. And that’s a double disaster.
Gabriela Luz, the humanitarian program officer of Oxfam Philippines, leads its Bohol Earthquake Emergency Response team. She has been working in the humanitarian field, for emergencies and disaster risk reduction, since Tropical Storm “Ondoy” in 2009.
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