Mindanao Still Paralyzed Three Months after Bopha

Allegations of aid politicization in Philippines ahead of elections

Nearly three months after Super Typhoon Bopha stormed ashore on Dec. 3, 2012 to devastate the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, tens of thousands of people remain homeless. Many of them are without adequate food or medical care, either because rescuers still haven't got to them or what many critics say is a rescue operation devoted to helping the most politically advantageous areas in advance of upcoming local elections.

It is emblematic of a government that has botched rescue operations perennially despite the fact that an average of 20 typhoons and other disasters strike the Philippines annually. With President Benigno S. Aquino III seeking to reform a ramshackle government inherited from decades of corrupt leaders, storm relief is one of those seemingly ineradicable issues handicapping successive administrations.

That was never more apparent than in 2009 under the government of former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, when Tropical Storm Ondoy dropped nearly 18 inches of rain on central Manila itself in a single day, then returned, paralyzing the city for weeks as rescue workers were unable to cope with its effects. The dominant image of rescue work on television was of movie starlets pressed into service to fling lunch packets to ravenous city dwellers. If the central government was unable to deliver relief in the capital city, critics said, what were the odds that it could do so on an island nearly 1,000 kilometers away?

Exacerbating the situation is that Bopha, known domestically as Pablo, was the most destructive storm ever to hit Mindanao and one of the most devastating ever to hit the country. A category 5 superstorm, it triggered flash floods and landslides that destroyed large tracts of farmland - including banana and coconut plantations that were the region's largest cash crops - and submerged entire communities.

In Baganga Municipality, the former coconut-basket of the country, according to a report by IRIN, a service of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, only 2 percent of the coconut trees survived, according to the municipal agriculture officer. The Philippines Coconut Association had no coconut seedlings to provide the municipality (the Association used to get all its seedlings from the municipality). Farmers are being encouraged to plant root crops and vegetables. In total, the typhoon damaged some 321,000 hectares of farmland.

Nearly 2,000 people were either killed or missing and presumed dead, including much of the entire tuna fleet. Many of nearly one million displaced still live in the remains of their homes salvaged from debris, or are staying with friends and families, or are in evacuation centers. The typhoon completely destroyed nearly 75,000 homes and partially damaged another 123,000. Survivors are now being helped to build using fallen coconut trees, local hardware supplies and salvaged materials.

According to the IRIN report, Caridad Calungsod and her three children exemplify the problems. The family has been living in a makeshift shelter along the highway leading into Baganga, a coastal farming municipality in Davao Oriental Province. Much of the rest of this report is taken from the UN agency.

"We want to start over, but there is nothing left in this community," the 34-year-old mother told the UN agency. "It is a struggle to feed the kids every day, sometimes there is not enough food to get by."

Government social workers have struggled to reach remote areas, some accessible only by hours-long hikes. Calungsod, and activists, say relief goods that have made it are parceled out to local officials who distribute them along political lines. Survivors interviewed by IRIN say unscrupulous politicians are using relief goods to boost their campaigns as the country prepares to vote on tens of thousands of local officials in mid-term elections in May, from village council officials and mayors, to members of Congress and senators.

Protest
In January, IRIN said, more than 5,000 frustrated residents barricaded the national highway to protest against what they said was the government's "selective" relief delivery system which, they alleged, favored large vote-rich areas rather than smaller communities in need of help.

The protest closed the highway for hours, stranding thousands of commuters and motorists. The impasse ended only after local government leaders came to the scene and distributed sacks of rice and other items to the protesters, with a promise to improve delivery to their communities soon.

International humanitarian agencies are reticent to comment openly about the situation because they are required to work closely with the very politicians accused of profiteering, but have expressed concern that tensions in storm-hit communities may rise if aid is blocked during the lead-up to the May local elections.

Local groups whose volunteers have been actively working in storm-hit communities say politicians and their campaign machinery routinely take credit for relief goods, which they distribute in areas where they have big constituencies.

"In some areas the relief packs are repackaged and are being sold," said Vencer Crsisostomo, chairman of Anakbayan, a national youth volunteer organization. "The government's Social Welfare Department should unconditionally release relief items to those in need, rather than [allow them to] be inadvertently used by politicians as a means to campaign."

The relief efforts, Crsistostomo charged, have become a tool for politicians to "build mass bases and political machineries" where analysts blame corruption for pockets of poverty in the lower middle-income country.

"This is inhuman and absurd, they should not be selective in distributing relief goods. This is pure politics getting in the way of helping the people," he said. "Where do the monies go? To the campaign machinery, or some politician's pocket? Officials need to be accountable," he said.

Improvements
The government's Social Welfare Department overseeing relief efforts acknowledged receiving complaints of aid coming to affected areas late, but stressed the situation has improved since the first chaotic weeks following the disaster.

"We have had a dialogue with local communities affected by the typhoon and we have told them to submit all the names of those that have yet to receive aid," Resty Macuto, director of the Social Welfare Department's disaster risk reduction and response operations centre based in Manila, told IRIN.

"As far as I am concerned, we have managed to improve the situation," he said, admitting that in the days that immediately followed Bopha, there was some confusion and logistical challenges because the typhoon had cut across large areas in the south, including far-flung tribal communities that even during the best of weather are difficult to reach.

Indigenous peoples most affected
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates up to 80 percent of the people affected by the Category 5 typhoon (winds up to 250km per hour) are indigenous peoples, some living in still inaccessible areas because while the typhoon has passed, the monsoon season with its daily downpours continues.

Arjun Jain, head of UNHCR's office overseeing the areas hit by the typhoon, told IRIN the "perception of inequitable distribution is creating tensions" between the remote highland indigenous communities and lowland communities. "The upcoming elections are a sensitive period. We have to make sure aid is not politicized, that it reaches communities in critical areas and that it is distributed solely on the basis of need."

Macuto said survivors might have also been frustrated by the government's initial requirement to provide "disaster access cards" issued to monitor the flow of aid in communities so as not to duplicate efforts.

In Binondo, one of Baganga Municipality's more remote communities, most the 1,200 families received the green access cards, but no information about the cards' importance or purpose. Macuto said card distribution was suspended in all typhoon-affected areas because the wind and flooding had destroyed the very documentation the government sought.

"It is not true that there is favoritism when it comes to distribution of aid. We are trying to reach everyone concerned, but sometimes it is just not enough," he said.

Donor funding shortfall
Catholic Relief Services (CRS) said it has not encountered any problems with "politicized aid" largely because it employed its own staff to distribute. "CRS coordinates information and planning with the local governments, but all distributions are conducted by CRS and local partner staff," said Joe Curry, who coordinates ground activities.

"Emergency aid in the form of food, shelter and cash is getting to the most affected areas and helping tens of thousands of affected families," he said.

"However, there is a large shortfall in the recovery phase. Without more sustained assistance, there is concern that there will be a second wave of disaster when emergency relief ends in the next few months."

Humanitarian groups have requested US$76 million to help typhoon-hit communities build back. Donors have pledged to fund about 40 percent, thus far, leaving close to $45 million in requests unmet.

While the international humanitarian community has responded, the International Committee of the Red Cross said this week needs are "still staggeringly high".

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