On the ground in the areas battered six months ago by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, it’s quite overwhelming to digest what’s happening, what questions to ask, what the needs and how these are being addressed.
When I visited last week three communities in the hardest-hit city of Tacloban and the provinces of Leyte and Western Samar, the first thing I learned was how everyone — from aid workers trying to figure out whether to install communal or private latrines, to local government officials building temporary housing units for survivors, to girls in need of gender-specific spaces — are all facing a similar problem: the money is there, but it’s not (yet) being used effectively for the rehabilitation process the funds were disbursed for.
In Santa Fe, a small town in Leyte, I checked out an ECHO-funded water and sanitation project implemented by ACF International. The local aid workers there didn't shy away from telling me that their project is running its course, but they won’t be able to complete it by the deadline agreed on with the donor.
Jesus Baena, a Spanish WASH expert overseeing the project, told me one of the issues they encountered was that ACF initially started building a public latrine for about 500 residents, but after they gathered data, analyzed the proposal and consulted members of the local community, they decided it was better to put up smaller toilets, one in each household.
This change of plans and in particular the information gathering process took a lot of time that could have been spent for instance on identifying other elements of Santa Fe’s sanitation infrastructure in need of rehabilitation, and determining exactly how many private latrines they should build. So far, only half of the toilets in place before the typhoon have been either fixed or replaced.
"Normally, one day should be enough, especially if you're just rehabilitating the structure, as we do here," Baena said. "But then there's another issue here in Leyte — the supply chain."
The WASH program manager argued that most organizations working in Haiyan-affected communities are sourcing almost the same set of materials from a limited pool of suppliers who are not always able to meet the demands of so many NGOs working there.
Heyssab Hassan, a local aid worker assigned to the same project, mentioned how project approval also causes delays.
Small purchase orders are approved easily in Tacloban, where ACF has set up an office following Haiyan to coordinate the organisation’s efforts in the typhoon-affected areas, But larger purchases need approval from Manila, or even worse — if it’s a lot of money, Madrid needs to sign off on the purchase order, which can take up to a month. Hassan has suggested making only small purchases to avoid delays and facilitate project implementation.
The WASH project in Santa Fe is only supposed to run until this month, the same situation faced by Plan International for building women-friendly spaces in parts of Samar and Leyte.
Plan has approved and disbursed funding from the U.N. Population Fund to set up these spaces — semi-permanent structures that can last up to four years — instead of the tents now being used and that have to be replaced after six months.
But according to Annastacia Olembo, a gender-based violence specialist with Plan International, they are still waiting for the government to allocate a space of public land for the structures to be erected, and after that they’ll need approval from the mayor. This is a clear example of how difficult it is for NGOs to operate in the Philippines due to the country’s extremely decentralized system of government, even when the bureaucracy is fully aware of how urgent the needs are. The funds from UNFPA are available, but they cannot be spent until all the necessary paperwork is finalized.
Another case I encountered where lack of funding is definitely not the problem was at a project funded by different donors and supported by the International Organization for Migration to build bunkhouses for typhoon survivors in Tacloban.
There, Fredalyn Ronda and her four children are all living in a temporary wooden shelter that is obviously too small for them, even if the Philippine government insists the international standards for such dwellings are too generous, and they keep waiting and waiting to get moved to somewhere more permanent.
"Some say they are moving us in permanent shelters, but we don't know when," Ronda tells me in Tagalog.
To make matters worse, the local owner of the land where the bunkhouses are currently set up is only giving the government until June to resettle the survivors. The government is trying to negotiate an extension until the end of the year, but nothing assures the inhabitants that by then another piece of land will be approved for them to go.
Still, they are better off than those who continue to live in tents six months after the storm.
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