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Natural Disasters

Many feel 'neglected and forgotten' after Haiyan

Despite the Philippine government’s efforts to provide relief to those affected by typhoon Haiyan, there are many who still feel neglected and forgotten, says analyst Steven Rood.

Some ten days after typhoon Haiyan left a trail of destruction in the Philippines, the administration of Benigno Aquino has been facing mounting criticism for its reportedly slow pace of aid distribution.

However, the government has defended its handling of the situation by stating that relief efforts were beginning to pick up. In a DW Interview, Philippines expert Steven Rood says the government's poor communication led the administration to underestimate the problem.

DW: There is criticism that the government has been slow with relief efforts, as aid hasn't still reached some of the affected areas. How do you assess the way the administration is handling the situation?

Steven Rood: Manila was right to insist on coordination, both among agencies and with the international donors. One of the key reforms of the past few years is the setting up of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) by the government. Also, international agencies, through their past experiences, are now in a better position to respond to such disasters.

Finally, the Philippine military has undertaken joint disaster response exercises with the US Military and the Japanese Self-Defence Forces. Thus, there were mechanisms in place to avoid confusion on the ground that often happens in these crisis situations.

However, the government did not set right expectations. While the President warned the country in a nationwide address the day before the storm, in the immediate aftermath, poor communication led the administration to underestimate the problem and believe that the damage was minimal. This was probably because of the absolute lack of communication facilities in the areas hardest hit.

Steven Rood, Country Representative for the Philippines and Pacific Island Nations at the Asia Foundation. (Copyright: Asia Foundation).

Rood: 'Were this a normal typhoon, the death toll would have been much lower'

Subsequently, there have repeatedly been underestimates of casualties or of the time necessary to deliver aid to such a widespread area. Thus, while the Philippine government has been doing about as well as it could be expected, there are many who feel neglected, marginalized, and forgotten.

President Aquino has faced mounting pressure to speed up the relief efforts. What are the reasons for the government's slow distribution of aid?

The basic reason for the slow pace of distribution of aid is the enormous scale and depth of destruction. Under the NDRRMC system, the primary channel for aid distribution and coordination is the local government. Unfortunately, in the affected areas, the local administration didn't perform its duty.

Police and civilian government employees were either absent or were taking care of the survival of their own families in a city which was almost totally destroyed by the storm. All that was left of the Tacloban City airport was the runway - all equipment and buildings were damaged since it is on a peninsula near the sea. Highways were blocked and therefore, it took days before regular trucking could get through.

Aquino has defended the government's efforts by saying the death toll might have been higher had it not been for the evacuation of people and the readying of relief supplies. Do you believe the preparedness for a storm of this magnitude was good enough?

Some 120,000 people were evacuated to safe areas, and many lives were saved. No lives were lost due to landslides, as people were moved out of danger areas. The death toll was overwhelmingly high in those regions which were hit by a storm surge - a wall of water 13 feet high. Preliminary results of autopsies show that 80 percent of deaths were by drowning.

In short, were this a normal typhoon with winds and rain, the death toll would have been much lower, in part due to preparations. However, these efforts did not help against the storm surge. In South Asia, around the Bay of Bengal, where storm surges are common, special multi-story shelters have been built to keep people above the surface; these do indeed reduce casualties.

But since the storm surge predictions are very new to the Philippines, most people did not realize that it was a situation much like a tsunami. Thus, they didn't know how to stay safe.

The government has also come under criticism over unclear estimates of casualties, especially in Tacloban, capital of the hardest-hit Leyte province. What is the reason behind the discrepancies in death toll figures?

The president has been relying on systematic data rather than impressionistic or anecdotal information. However, as the systematic data collection has been very slow, Aquino has been quoting figures that are low while warning, at the same time, that they might go higher. The Tacloban City estimates are mere guesses, based on people's impressions on the ground. But there is no reason to suppose a political factor behind these revisions.

How is the current sense of chaos and lawlessness in the affected areas likely to impact Aquino's popularity ratings?

President Aquino can regain control over the narrative if this relief effort can be increasingly seen as a success. The administration needs to demonstrate that international relief is transparently distributed. If by the Christmas holiday break the story line is about how people are being helped and how the government prepares for the long-term reconstruction, then the President's popularity ratings will remain high. But if the narrative is dominated by needy people not being helped, his ratings will fall.

What more should the Philippine government do to be better prepared to face such disasters in the future?

In the long term, disaster preparedness will require more investment in infrastructure, which the administration has been focusing on to help spur economic growth. That will need to be continued in the form of more robust storm shelters, more paved roads to avoid places being cut off from outside help. But community preparation also needs to be strengthened along with an emphasis on community resilience. As outside help is very unlikely in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, each community will have to be able to rely, at least for a short time, on its own resources.

Steven Rood is the representative of the Asia Foundation in the Philippines and Pacific Island Nations.

The interview was conducted by Srinivas Mazumdaru.