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
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.”
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.
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
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.
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,”
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
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
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
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,