Rotting food aid for Philippine typhoon victims 'shameful'

A man carries humanitarian relief goods distributed by World Vision in Cebu, one of the areas badly hit by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. Photo by: Samenwerkende Hulporganisaties / CC BY-NC-SA

Over four months after Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines, allegations have surfaced that a significant amount of food aid given to the victims in the worst-hit areas of Leyte and Samar has been left to rot, instead of being distributed to hungry survivors.

According to several reports, a local politician in Palo, Leyte, decided to trash relief goods of mostly instant noodles and canned goods that were found to be swarming with maggots.

Sherwin Gatchalian, a Philippine congressman known for promoting disaster preparedness efforts in his home district of flood-prone Valenzuela, said the incident is both “shameful” and alarming because of the lack of coordination in delivering aid, and failure to understand what needs to be done in the face of international donors.

“When donations from the multilateral organizations, the private sector and private citizens were coming in, the next hurdle is how to give them to the people. What happened is that it got stuck … and was not able to be distributed in far-flung areas,” Gatchalian told Devex. “My point is that, it's shameful because there were a lot of multilateral and foreign donors still in Leyte and for them to see their donations being wasted is really shameful.”

Gatchalian added the protocol is to deliver food aid immediately precisely because it is perishable, even if it happens four months after the storm, as many survivors are still in desperate need of assistance.

“How come they didn't predict that these donations would be spoiled or get rotten? There could be mishandling, also but because apparently some of the donations were just left in places where [they are] not protected,” he noted.

‘Don’t be disheartened’

Despite the controversy, the Philippine lawmaker said the issue should not — ideally — affect the attitude of the international development community in extending help to the country’s rehabilitation and recovery efforts.

“I really hope this is an isolated case. This is something negligible vis-a-vis the entire [relief and rehabilitation] operations and just something that's highlighted in between,” Gatchalian explained. “Things like these could happen in any relief efforts of this magnitude.”

He added: “But then again, we have to learn our lessons. The Philippines is really logistically challenging. We also hope that the donor community does not only focus on this since there's a bigger effort being achieved. The international donor community should not be disheartened by this issue.”

Implementing partners like the U.N. World Food Program were also appalled and promised to investigate.

“WFP is looking into the matter to determine the origin of the food and its reported disposal,” Country Director Prawin Agrawal told Devex. “WFP takes the quality and safety of its food assistance very seriously, and has procedures for the disposal of damaged or deteriorated foods.”

According to the Philippine government’s online transparency portal of foreign aid for Haiyan operations, a total of $580 million in development assistance has been pledged, with around 20 percent of the cash pledges or $13.38 million were received — highlighting the importance of foreign aid to the relief and rehabilitation efforts in the the country.

Coordination woes

Coordination in the relief and rehabilitation operations has been a headache for all stakeholders since the first days after Haiyan.

In December, Devex reported on the ground in Tacloban that the problem was not the lack of supply but the way aid was being delivered and distributed to the victims, especially in the far-flung areas. Even instances of goods repacking were reported, depriving victims of quality food aid.

Gatchalian said these issues should be addressed immediately as people’s lives are on the line and will also serve as a good template when future disasters hit the country, one of the most vulnerable in the world to earthquakes, floods, typhoons and the effects of climate change in general.

“If there are logistical bottlenecks, then we have to cure these bottlenecks. We have to find out how to prevent this from happening,” he noted. “We want to investigate this matter closely … so these issues won't happen again.”

“We should plan properly so when another [disaster] strikes, we're ready,” the congressman concluded.

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About the author

  • Lean 2

    Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a 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. Prior to joining Devex, he covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics. Lean is based in Manila.