With the spate of emergencies hitting the Philippines in the last few years, more than ever, there's a need for the country to be smarter and think bigger about how to approach the scale-breaking disasters we will most likely get in the next few years. But we need to start thinking not just about what happens during a disaster, but also the ramifications following it. In Oxfam, I was struck by what one of my work idols, Lan Mercado, said "The lawlessness that erupted days after Haiyan was an unfolding secondary disaster that abated after relief trickled through." As dramatic as it sounds, a disaster doesn't truly became a disaster unless the response that follows it falls short of what the affected people need. Japan, for example, is hit by earthquakes, tsunamis and cyclones, but we are continually amazed by how quickly they rehabilitate and go back to normal. The Philippines will continue to deal and feature in disaster, if we don't start thinking differently about how we shall approach these.
Many things about Haiyan have been dissected and analyzed to death (me being one of those people that did the dissecting and analyzing) but what I'd like to write about right now is something I'm dealing firsthand with, here in the aftermath of the Bohol earthquake. I'll take you through a picture of what's happening literally right outside the bubble that is Haiyan. Buried under the many issues of meeting basic needs for huge numbers of people in the quickest period of time possible, how to overtake the serious threat of an already poor region sinking further into poverty due to the increase in their vulnerability, and many many other issue, is the issue of the competition of emergencies.
What exactly am I talking about? Let me walk you through my perspective from the time before during and in the month following Haiyan. Prior to the superstorm, the Bohol earthquake was on every Filipino's radar. It was the biggest earthquake to hit in years and affected one of the more popular tourist destinations of our country. A number of municipalities recorded 80 to nearly 100% damage to infrastructure and shelters. People were and continue to live in tents. Aftershocks, some of them pretty strong, continued, straining the psychosocial trauma people already had. It held the Philippine public's attention, more so than probably the Zamboanga crisis, in part because the context was easier to understand and also because it drove home the possibility that the Big One could hit Metro Manila and wipe out our earthquake-unprepared systems. During the rapid assessment, nearly every humanitarian actor and a lot of civil society groups and private sector groups were on the ground assessing and delivering aid. It felt like nearly every affected municipality was covered by a smorgasbord of agencies, depending on the menu option of intervention that could respond to the needs.
And then around 2 weeks later, Haiyan hit. Not only was it on every Filipino's radar, it was on the world's. It was the worst disaster to hit our country in decades, a picture that you see only in movies with disaster apocalypse and end of the world scenarios but concentrated in a deadly line cutting through the heart of the Philippines. Stories that would make a tough person cry were a dime a dozen (and really, you will cry). Most everyone knew and worried over someone in affected areas. It was a time for every Filipino to be emotional and rightly so.
A week after Haiyan, the world shared its sympathy and donations poured in. The sentiment that was shared by almost every single country in the world was that we were not alone in this. All around the world, people of different nationalities were grouping together to pack relief or to fundraise and sending it our way. Little children were breaking open piggy banks and going into Philippine embassies to give their entire life savings. Inside the country, government, organizations, civil society, private sector, Filipinos, non-Filipinos worked to pull together and answer to the basic needs of the affected population.
Government and humanitarian organizations pooled and pulled resources to head off the potential of a greater disaster that could stem from the inability and incapacity to respond. After a week of stops and starts, the collective response started clicking. First, small numbers of people were being reached... then bigger and bigger numbers and the ball started rolling. Tacloban went from having zero everything to having a functioning something again, a big accomplishment in itself. Lifelines started coming up. It's not perfect yet and most likely never will be but aid is getting to the people who need it.
But fastforward to Haiyan. The DEC Appeal (Disasters Emergency Committee Appeal) has raised a mind-blowing GBP 73 million. Oxfam has reached a quarter of million people directly and the number continues to climb. Other humanitarian organizations are most likely meeting that number as well.
But... what about the Bohol earthquake emergency? And the Zamboanga conflict emergency?
What we aren't realizing is that the inability to address the increasing frequency and scale of disasters is the perfect set-up for disaster. Not being able to get ahead of each emergency and cutting them off before they can be actual disasters is basically uncovering that what we may call "preparedness" is actually just "response." That we're not preparing in a scale proportionate to the disasters we're starting to experience just means that we will most certainly continue to respond and play catch-up with the rotation of disasters in the country.
What do I mean by a competition of emergencies? Before Haiyan hit the Philippines, the Bohol earthquake was considered a disaster in the sense that it was still beyond local government to respond on their own and answer to all the needs arising from the impact of the earthquake. But with the number of agencies who went down to assist and the general goodwill, there was a lot of hope and the promise of a lot of resources from different groups that could contribute to recovery. The UN put out an appeal to fund the action plan for Bohol recovery and response. Then Haiyan happened and the Bohol earthquake became less of a disaster, in perspective to Haiyan.
This is what I mean by a competition of emergencies, broken down:
Competition of resources
The world is wonderfully generous about Haiyan. But while the DEC appeal has raised an incredible amount of GBP 73 million, the Bohol Appeal is seriously underfunded at 21%. The Bohol Appeal is based on the needs of those who are most vulnerable and truly need it. Stated simply, the imbalance of resources from Haiyan to Bohol could mean that 4/5ths of those affected by Haiyan are facing a longer period of recovery and will face alternative ways of coping without the assistance it needs to kickstart their progress. It could mean living in tents for a longer period of time, an increased vulnerability and risk of protection issues from living in temporary shelters, education suffering because of the lack of money to rebuild schools, or using savings or money to rebuild homes instead of restarting livelihoods. It could mean a big step back for Bohol.
Competition of markets
When it comes to a natural disaster, the immediate assumption is that basic needs are stripped from those who are the most vulnerable; food, water, shelter. When that happens, there's a race against time to deliver aid that would meet the big three. Humanitarian agencies have been working in emergencies for so long that we have basically broken this down to aid kits like food packs, hygiene kits, water kits (containers and household water treatment solutions) and emergency shelter materials like tarpaulins. For many humanitarian organizations following international standards, there's a minimum set of standards that talks about what sort of materials your aid should be composed of and to make our responses faster, we've figured out exactly what quality and quantity these should be.
Now in a super disaster like Haiyan with blanket affected populations ranging in the millions, you're talking about hundreds of thousands of these aid kits. Now imagine every humanitarian agency on the ground trying to purchase hundreds of thousands of these kits and at the quickest possible time. The demand is to buy it now to deliver it now to the affected people. In the case of Haiyan, you're talking about a huge number of organizations putting in orders to the nearest supplier out there to buy out every thing they can because of the need to meet needs... and fast. And then imagine being shut out of the nearest suppliers or markets and looking at the next nearest... and the next nearest... and the next nearest... all while competing to get these kits before other agencies can buy it all out.
What happened here in Bohol where, two weeks into the earthquake, agencies working on the ground were still trying to meet the needs for food, water and shelter, markets suddenly and almost instantaneously 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 in places like Tacloban with zero function were bigger and more immediate. The assessment was that because markets in Bohol were still functioning, there would still be availability of stock. But now almost two months later, responding to Bohol is at a pace many are dissatisfied with, almost limping along in the couple of weeks following Haiyan because of the inability to get the supplies needed to deliver a proper response. While the weeks before Haiyan allowed a lot of agencies to come in and produce quick work for immediate life-saving needs, the early recovery phase of moving people back to normal is moving much slower than it rightly should be.
Competition in lifelines and infrastructures
If there are difficulties with markets with a formula of: same/similar items x number of affected population x multiple number of agencies = the number of aid kits needed, imagine looking at how that would get through to affected areas in terms of lifelines and infrastructures!
If you get through the hurdle of markets and can purchase the right number of aid kits that you need, you're facing a whole new problem of getting those supplies in. You're talking about trucking, fleets, cargo, etc. Now imagine other agencies being able to purchase their own kits with the need to deliver it now as well.
What happened in Haiyan is that places like Leyte had no local suppliers. There were no vehicles, no fuel, no trucking. Everything had to be sourced the outside. You're scrambling to get the next available vehicle, but guess what? You're not the only organization trying to do the same. Suddenly suppliers who could bring relief in were in high demand and could control prices. It was costing up to PHP 10,000 per vehicle just to rent. Trucking companies were cancelling deliveries in the middle of the night right before a distribution because there were higher bids from other groups that were worth more money. It was a logistical nightmare.
Now imagine that you already have limited resources and you're still in Bohol working on the earthquake response. Imagine you needed to cargo something in from Manila and because of limited resources, you're relying on the airline foundations to give you free cargo. But the need is greater for Haiyan and so the priority is there. Without resources, relying on this kind of support offered during an emergency means you're lower on the priority list.
Competition in human resources
Hand-in-hand with resources is the human element. Many people want to help, can and should continue and are so happily encouraged to do so. The support in the form of relief, time volunteering and money is a huge help. But when it comes to the humanitarian field, it is a relatively small one with few that are equipped or have the knowledge to work in emergencies. Being able to find someone who can work in emergencies means finding that person who has the technical expertise, knowledge and experience not just to respond, but to figure out the puzzle of how you can go beyond response and move towards recovery as quickly as possible. It's not just about finding able bodies to come and get their hands dirty. It's about finding people who have the commitment to work almost 24/7 for months, in hard conditions and away from their families. It's about finding someone who has the passion to sustain that and the ability to know how to process it so the toll of seeing the damaged environments and affected people doesn't weigh in too much and burn them out. It's about the people who practice that it's not just response but recovery we should be aiming for.
That is what the Bohol earthquake emergency is probably most struggling with at the moment. Immediately after Haiyan, it was like an exodus of experienced humanitarian workers being pulled out to work where the need was greater: Haiyan. When the community after the earthquake was populated by NGOs, only a few were able to stay on. It wasn't that there was no recognition of Bohol as an emergency, but it was that we are all, government and organizations, so stretched by the number of emergencies and disasters hitting us, there is no room for more. I dread to think what would happen if the December trend of storms that hit us with Sendong and Pablo happens this year as well. There are no humanitarian workers available, I think. And when the scale of an emergency is as great as Haiyan, that stage when you have to deliver immediate life-saving needs to lower the risk of more casualties is no stage to be training new people.
Personally for me, the biggest challenge of working in this Bohol earthquake is not that there is no funding for it but that even if there was, who could work here? The scale of supertyphoon Haiyan is so large, it's almost impossible to find an agency that won't respond. And a super disaster like this one means the scale of response must be appropriate... meaning the staffing structures of most responses are enormous, bigger than entire agencies even. And with a super disaster like Haiyan that scattered affected areas... that means multiple offices in different islands.
Competition in perspective
The scale of Haiyan is unquestionably huge. The entire world thinks so. When putting two emergencies together, any humanitarian worker would be loathe to tell you that one is more important than the another. To a person affected by an earthquake or a supertyphoon, they won't be looking at their situation of losing everything and thinking "well, this is less of a disaster than the other, so good for me!" To a person who has lost everything, they've lost everything, no ifs ands or buts about it. It's not about saying Haiyan is more important than Bohol because it was bigger, the area coverage was wider, the scale was larger, the death toll was so much more. The needs of the vulnerable are the needs of the vulnerable.
But it does happen that perspective gets skewed. The scale of Haiyan was undoubtedly bigger. It's also fresher in people's minds. But it's still difficult to compare both because a typhoon evolves differently from an earthquakes with the needs equally pressing.
It's very difficult to say that one is more important than the other because an emergency is an emergency.
But perspective still gets skewed. And when resources are stretched, then you inevitably end up choosing. And when you choose to respond more to one than the other, then it means less resources for the other to recover.
That's what I mean by a competition of emergencies. So what's happening now with Bohol is that we're seeing issues crop up again, on water, sanitation and hygiene, because needs are overlooked. People are not sure how long they will stay in their current living conditions. Livelihoods are still a question mark. And take a look at Zamboanga. People are still living in evacuation centers. Incredibly distressing issues on gender-based violence and protection are coming out. Reports of prostitution, involving even children for a tiny bit of money are floating around. But even with these issues cropping up... who is left to cover it?
This is why the recognition that a competition of emergencies can happen is important because the pressure of it happening should be adding to how we understand addressing the scale of preparing for disasters. If we know that the frequency and scale will only increase, so much so that we run the risk of easing support to certain emergencies because we're too stretched to cover the ones being placed on our plate, then we should start anticipating that this could be happen while we're in the midst of another emergency.
There are things disaster risk reduction practitioners push over and over again that could help us adjust to this idea of competition. This is not a comprehensive list and other experts would be so much better at explaining this but from the viewpoint of knocking outside the door of Haiyan here in Bohol, here's what I think could be done to adjust to this problem:
Abbi is a petite human, blogger, amateur photographer, permanent humanitarian, avid traveller, culture addict, giant bookworm and impossible foodie.