Post-Haiyan efforts: On the right track, but a long way to go

A ship washed ashore when Typhoon Haiyan hit Old Kawayan, a small coastal community at the outskirts of Tacloban. There is still a long way to recovery, but Haiyan survivors are not losing hope. Photo by: Lean Santos / Devex

What difference can seven months make? For Haiyan survivors, relief efforts — albeit inconsistent at times — marked the line between life and death.

Talking to survivors in Tacloban, considered the “ground zero” of the catastrophe in the central Philippines, during my second visit a few days ago felt bittersweet. While I was excited to see development on the ground, grim images from my first visit back in December — a month after the typhoon — lingered in my mind.

Half a year later, though, what I saw was different.

The city is bustling with activity. Many businesses are back, transportation services and roads have been fixed and the atmosphere seemed relatively upbeat. It is true that relief and recovery efforts have not been perfect; the coordination of relief efforts and the delayed drafting of a concrete rehabilitation plan continue to hamper progress. But to say international relief efforts have not made a difference would be unfair.

Old Kawayan, a small coastal community at the outskirts of Tacloban, suffered one of the biggest setbacks during the typhoon. Of almost 300 houses, only about 10 survived and most of them are partially damaged. The rest were laid flat by the huge waves resulting from the storm surge. But visiting the community this week provided me with a glimpse of the kind of hope residents have for their future.

Old Kawayan’s local leaders were quick to say that Haiyan may have been the worst tragedy they have yet faced, but it has also offered them an opportunity to make better sense of their lives.

Prior to Haiyan, the water supply of the community was solely from a makeshift well around five minutes from their community by foot. This posed a health risk to the community, the barangay captain told me. Now, there’s a well-maintained water resource that delivers filtered water to almost every household in the community through a WASH project implemented by World Vision. Rachelle Coates, World Vision senior program officer for Haiyan response, said the NGO plans to install a faucet and a water supply in every household in the next few months.

“We make sure we’re not only providing the structure but also the knowledge, that the community knows how to maintain it,” she said.

Recurring issues

But this storyline is just a drop in the bucket.

While success stories are blossoming out of the tragedy, narratives of struggle remain. Aid delivery and coordination has been one of the biggest stumbling blocks development stakeholders involved in the operations face. Coates said during our trip that the lack of a coordinated plan during the first few months after the typhoon not only affected NGO operations but also the efficiency of the entire relief and recovery efforts.

The Philippine government’s controversial bunk houses are among the main points of contention. They were constructed to serve as temporary shelter for about two years before residents would be resettled, but several aid groups criticize these living spaces for being too small and lacking a proper drainage and sewage system, among other shortcomings.

“The bunkhouse issue has also created a problem for NGOs in coordinating aid because some don’t want to somehow support the project because of the range of issues affecting it,” Coates suggested.

A representative of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs acknowledged that relief efforts could have been better coordinated in the typhoon’s aftermath, before the central government stepped up to handle operations. Government agencies, including the country’s social welfare agency and the disaster risk reduction and management office, conducted their own operations alongside the United Nations cluster system; some foreign aid agencies and NGOs were doing their own thing.

“It was a bit confusing at first,” Kasper Engborg, OCHA’s office head in Tacloban, told Devex, adding that the government is now doing its best to centralize all efforts.

“We are planning to roll out the second phase of the rehabilitation plan hopefully by the first of July,” he shared. “I have to laud the government in this effort. I’ve been doing this job since 1996 but this is the first time I saw a government take the lead. People from the [Office of the Presidential Assistant for Rehabilitation and Recovery] and us from OCHA are now sitting literally in one room to better coordinate the plan.”

Private sector conundrum

While the international development community and the government represent the bulk of actors, with several groups having set up offices in the Leyte capital, contributions from the private sector have also made their mark.

Companies like Ayala, Coca-Cola Co. and Ikea donated money and gave various forms of assistance to the rest of the Haiyan-hit areas. Here and elsewhere across Asia-Pacific, private-sector participation is gaining traction, as we’ve seen in our recent coverage of the region.

Despite these gains, Save the Children officials I talked to in Tacloban said that risks remain when engaging the private sector.

“In Haiyan, the private sector wanted to be part of the cluster system,” Krista Zimmerman, Save the Children’s humanitarian advocacy manager, told Devex. “The intention was good and they try to learn, but in delivery [of development outcomes], there are some inconsistencies.”

It seems important to me that the private sector does not detach from the development process but is integrated more, especially in the learning phase. There’s too much at stake — especially for victims of disaster — for another slipup to happen.

On the way back to the airport, I saw a huge cargo ship almost in the middle of the national highway. It got swept by the huge waves almost fifty kilometres away from the sea port, residents said when I went down to check it out. It was a colossal structure that looks out of place in between the houses it fortunately did not derail. Looking closer to the hull, I saw the words written on it.

“Have faith! We can do it together!” was one of the quotes. Another read: “Don’t lose hope! God bless Tacloban!”

For survivors of Typhoon Haiyan, the ship has become a symbol of hope and faith that they are on the right track on their recovery despite the long and winding road ahead of them.

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The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.