When Typhoon Haiyan smashed into Tacloban in the central Philippines almost three years ago, Arsenio was one of the lucky ones – he survived by swimming a kilometer to safety.
“Every time there is a storm, I get scared, even after three years,” he said. “I don’t want to go through the same thing again.” Yet, with reconstruction efforts caught in never-ending red tape and governmental inefficiency, there is a good chance he will.
The archipelago nation is regularly rocked by storms that are predicted to get stronger and more frequent due to climate change. And the 67-year-old shopkeeper is still living in the same place: the Seawall Barangay (neighborhood), which is strung along the Tacloban coast, where reconstruction programs have flagged once the spotlight has gone off the millions left in crisis.
“I am pissed off,” said Arsenio, who declined to give his last name. “I have not been offered any sort of relocation by the government, even in a transitional center.”
After Haiyan – one of the strongest tropical cyclones ever recorded, and one that destroyed more than a million homes and killed more than 6,000 people – the government promised to “build back better.” The strategy included relocating people away from coastal areas that are almost sure to be hit again.
The plan has so far been a failure, at least in terms of numbers.
In the aftermath of one of the worst natural disasters ever to hit the Philippines, the government of then president Benigno Aquino III committed to building 205,000 homes to accommodate around one million people living in coastal danger zones.
Last week, Vice President Leni Robredo, newly installed as head of the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council – an umbrella organization overseeing various government housing agencies – admitted that only around 1 percent of the target had been achieved.
“The report reaching us is that only 25,000 were completed,” she said at a press conference. “From the 25,000 that were completed, 2,500 were occupied.”
Lives in danger
As the third anniversary of the Haiyan disaster approaches on Nov. 8 hundreds of thousands of people in the Philippines, including tens of thousands in Tacloban, continue to live in areas the government has designated as “no dwelling zones”.
They include residents of Seawall who, like Arsenio, rebuilt their homes after the storm. They are shacks made from whatever could be found in the wreckage or was donated by charities – plywood, sacking, and corrugated iron. Some jut out into the sea, supported on stilts, and are connected to the land by single wooden boards.
Joyce Sierra, advocacy officer at Social Watch Philippines, said many survivors of Typhoon Haiyan, known locally as Yolanda by the Filipino weather service PAGASA, had to rebuild their lives with little or no assistance, which pushed them deeper into poverty. “They are even poorer and even more vulnerable now, even three years after Yolanda,” she told IRIN.
Robredo blamed the lack of progress on “red tape,” particularly the processing of documents and land titles for sites where homes were to be built. She has said she would coordinate with the Commission on Audit and the National Economic Development Agency to see if the bureaucracy can be reduced.
The slow grind is frustrating for people like Glenda Nibasa, a housewife living in Tacloban’s flood-prone Picas barangay. As she waits for the government to provide her with a proper home, she’s living in a temporary shelter provided by the NGO World Vision.
"If the government wants to help us, why are there so many processes? Why won’t they just help us?” she asked. The mind-numbing bureaucratic processes are one of the factors that delivered up the controversial presidency of Rodrigo Duterte, the maverick Davao City mayor who rode to victory on a pledge to exterminate drug dealers, but whose appeal has been sweetened by his pledges to cut red tape.
But constructing new homes is not the end of the problem.
Even survivors who are offered the chance to relocate sometimes decide against it, because the inland safe zones are far from their where they work – usually in the fishing industry. They also fear the new homes are a step down in terms of quality of life.
“We declined because the area is far from our livelihood and we heard the water was not good,” said Marissa Trebajo, who sells fish at the Seawall market to support her four children.
Ildebrando Bernadas, head of the Tacloban city government’s disaster risk reduction and management office, acknowledged that there is a problem with water supply and said it was because no national agency had been assigned to the problem.
Plans are now being drawn up to provide a water supply to Tacloban’s relocation “township” in the north of the city.
Bernadas also said Haiyan survivors’ concerns about their livelihoods were being addressed, and employment and training provided – though it could not be guaranteed that those being relocated, mostly fishermen, would be able to continue with the same job.
“Actually, those that are now resettled permanently, that was also their sentiment: ‘We don’t want to move because our lives here, we are fishermen, etc.’ But now they are there, they feel happy about it,” he said.