February 2014, Vol. 26, No.2

After Typhoon Haiyan

news Relief agencies and their industry partners support water and sanitation recovery in the Philippines 

A month after Typhoon Haiyan’s Nov. 8 arrival in the Philippines, residents of Tacloban, the hard-hit capital of the nation’s Leyte province, were still searching for clean water.

The coastal city’s municipal water system suffered widespread damage from the typhoon and the huge storm surge that followed, with lines ruptured and uprooted citywide, according to David Darg, vice president of international operations for Operation Blessing International (Virginia Beach, Va.).

“People were so desperate that they would gather around where the water line was exposed and collect whatever water they could in buckets and washtubs,” said Darg, who spent the first few weeks after Haiyan on the ground there.

The problem was, the water flowing through Tacloban’s pipes was contaminated. “I wouldn’t have drunk the water from the city’s tap on a good day,” said Darg. “The combination of dead animals, dead bodies, and cracked pipes made it all that much worse.”  

At least Tacloban has a water system to repair. Nearly a quarter of the Philippines’ 98 million citizens did not have regular access to potable water even before the latest typhoon. Far fewer have modern sanitation in a country where more than half of the groundwater is dangerously contaminated.


A long road to recovery

Darg, who has been a first responder to more than 100 natural disasters globally, said the level of suffering following Typhoon Haiyan was among the worst he has ever witnessed.

One of the largest storms to make landfall in recorded history, the cyclone left more than 6000 dead and hundreds more missing. Some 4 million people, or more than 4% of the nation’s population, saw their homes damaged or destroyed. 

Attending to these victims’ immediate medical, water, and sanitation needs was the first job of the patchwork of international aid organizations that responded. To help speed the process, most companies familiar with disaster relief tend to develop ongoing partnerships with experienced aid organizations that are able to get their people on the ground quickly. Project Blessing, for example, maintains a full-time staff of 100 in the Philippines for ongoing humanitarian work.

That’s one reason why Darg was on the ground within 48 hours of the storm, ready to prepare for the arrival and deployment of seven portable water treatment systems donated by Miox Corp. (Albuquerque, N. M.), each with the capacity to clean water for about 30,000 people.

Elsewhere, agencies including Water Missions International (Charleston, S.C.), Mercy Corps (Portland, Ore.), Planet Water Foundation (Omaha, Neb.), and Oxfam International (Oxford, England) focused, among other things, on installing emergency water filtration and treatment systems provided by companies such as Pentair Ltd. (Minneapolis) and Xylem Inc. (White Plains, N.Y.), among others.

“There’s no real coordination between agencies on these efforts,” explained Bill Horn, president of Project Blessing. “With so much need and so little time, there is work here for everyone.”

In an acute disaster such as Haiyan, the goal for all is to move from emergency relief to recovery as soon as possible. This involves getting experts such as Andy Bastable, who heads Oxfam’s Water and Sanitation operations, onsite to work with government officials in assessing water and sanitation system conditions and ascertaining the resources needed for repairs.

These assessments can vary dramatically, depending on the location, Bastable said.

In major cities such as Tacloban, work already is under way to repair broken water pipes, with Oxfam offering local residents a ration of food in exchange for their labor. In some cases, Oxfam is blocking off connections that went to now-destroyed homes, replacing them with community taps where people can go to access free, clean water.

Bastable predicts it will take 6 months to a year before the Tacloban water supply is fully operational. He said this timetable will depend in part on the speed with which the electrical grid – and, therefore, pumping operations – can be restored.

“There are about 800 km (500 mi) of cable[s] between cities that have been knocked down. Assuming they can bring the power station back online relatively quickly, it could be a year before all of the power lines are rebuilt,” he said. 


Rural areas: Another story 

If moving to recovery is challenging in the cities, it is even more so in the many rural and remote areas affected by the storm. Just reaching survivors is difficult; the Philippines is composed of more than 7000 islands, many of which saw their docks destroyed by Haiyan.

“The only access is by air, and you can only get so much on a plane,” Horn said.  Communication, too, is nearly impossible. “Our satellite equipment has been almost useless, and cell phone service hasn’t stood up, challenging everyone, including the government, to know who needs what, when, and where,” Horn said.

In these remote locations, villagers get their water primarily from shallow, open wells, many of which became contaminated by the storm surge. “Our job here is to pump out the water that ended up in the well from the tidal surge, chlorinate the water supply, and distribute membrane filters that residents can use at home,” said Bastable.

In some ways, Horn said he expects these remote areas to recover more easily than the urban ones.

“The water these people drink is not near our standards, but they’re used to drinking it, or are more used to boiling it to avoid disease than the city folk,” he said.

When it comes to sanitation, there is little for relief workers to respond to anywhere. For all intents and purposes, the affected areas have no sewer system to repair. The rural areas in particular have very low toilet coverage and rely on primitive sanitation methods. Even cities have open defecation zones, said Darg.

This worries him. “When you have so many people displaced from their homes, very little access to safe water, continuing rainfall, and next-to-no sanitation, you are at risk for a humanitarian disaster,” he said.

Medical teams deployed to the region have reported an increase in intestinal diseases, especially among children, said Horn. “Young people are most vulnerable because they don’t have the immunity built up like many adults do,” he said.

Bastable, who has led disaster-recovery efforts worldwide since 1990, believes it could be much worse. “Hygiene awareness here is fairly high, compared to other regions of the world,” he said.

Philippine authorities, he said, have reacted more effectively than many governments as well. “Compared to the tsunami in Indonesia or the earthquake in Haiti, the authorities here are doing quite well,” Bastable said.

In fact, he is choosing to see this latest typhoon as an opportunity to push the agenda for better water and sanitation nationwide.

Companies that want to contribute in the meantime are wise to find experienced aid agencies to partner with and to let the people on the ground tell them how best to help, said both Bastable and Darg.

By mid-December, these two disaster veterans had left the Philippines for other disaster zones. But both say their agencies are in the Philippines for the long haul. “Don’t worry,” said Bastable, “we’ll be back.”


— Mary Bufe, WE&T