On the 22nd of October I had the chance to visit one of the areas in Metro Manila which was struck by Typhoon Ondoy/Ketsana. Together with some team members of the Citizens’ Disaster Response Centre (CDRC), a colleague of their local co-operator CREST, a member of the local community and some Japanese volunteers, we went to Brgy. Bagumbayan, Quezon City in order to get an overview about the current situation of the 1,080 families affected. This visit was part of a planned aid delivery which will take place in the community on the 24th of October and which is destined for some 340 families.
On our arrival we were – as always on my so far undertaken visits to the sites, warmly welcomed. After a short walk down a narrow alley we reached the parts of the quarter which were flooded almost three weeks ago. It seemed that life in this rather poor area was already going its normal way, even if most of the houses had been flooded only some short time ago. People were chatting in front of their houses, children were playing around and small kiosks offered sweets and drinks. Only when looking into the houses that the real dimension of the tragedy got visible.
Those houses which are built on the shore of the river still were full of mud, and a slight smell of brackish water was in the air. The closer we got to the river, the more visible the damage became. In order to be able to go to their houses people had to build provisional bridges out of sandbags filled with pebbles and connected by boards. The only water pump in the neighbourhood, which provides people with water to do the washing etc., was surrounded by mud which reached the knees of those who were using it. It was easy to see how the already bad situation of people living in this densely populated area, in rather provisional built houses of wood and metal, further deteriorated. Being that close to the river, all houses had their first floors full of mud so that they still were unusable.
The building material got strongly affected by the water what soon can become a problem for houses’ stability. The small spaces which are occupied by families up to 10-12 people and often by three generations, are even getting smaller as all family members moved to the second floor – at least in those houses where a second floor was existing. As there is not any separation of generations, there is often not any separation of sexes either. As unemployment is very high within the community, it will be difficult for the people to gain enough money to re-establish their houses and start new small businesses.
Even if living conditions are still very low, and the mud water and a bad hygienic situation in the streets signify a clear risk for peoples’ health, inhabitants start to move back into their houses and only go to the safe evacuation centre to sleep there. Due to the severe hygienic situation and due to the high humidity, first illnesses already broke out. I saw several children with infected eyes and skins and mothers told us that next to skin diseases fever and diarrhoea are frequent.
Due to the high water level of the river several houses have been separated from the community. Reaching those houses – which are already being used by their owners again – was only possible by a kind of boat which consisted of a huge hard block of Styrofoam. After calculating the risks of such a “boat-ride” we decided to get on the block and were brought to those there. By getting on this boat it is clear that a bad or even regular swimmer is in danger of life in case of average – women, men and children take that risk on a daily basis to reach their houses or make their way to school.
When we arrived after a short trip down the river, people went out their houses to see us and talk to us. They were standing in the river while greeting us and water probably was still in their houses too. In an interview I conducted with some of the flood victims they described how the water suddenly rose within seconds on the day typhoon Ondoy/Ketsana hit the Metro-Manila region and covered their houses completely with water. There was no chance and time for them to save anything but their lives, which they did by running up the hills next to the shore of the river. Still they are scared that a similar disaster could happen again – especially since they were not warned at all – not even of the opening of the various dams up the river which caused further devastation. Especially when it rains they still get nervous and cannot find sleep. The situation for the youngest seems to be even worse. Not being able to process what they had to go through, some of them still run up the hill in panic every time the rain gets stronger.
But people do not see any other chance but to stay. They left their home provinces years ago and built up their lives and social networks next to the river. They left due to a lack of opportunities within their home regions, hoping for a better education and health care for their children, and for job opportunities for themselves. Their children go to school and even a health centre can be reached by a 10-minute walk, but medicine is scarce and doctors only visit the community on an irregular basis. Only in case they got a safe place offered where they have equal or better opportunities than they currently have, they would be willing to leave their homes to settle elsewhere. This means that people will stay in an extremely disaster prone area, living in provisional houses and in bad hygienic conditions what makes them extremely vulnerable to future disasters.
In order to improve the situation on a short term, medical and psychological care should be provided. As the government was not able to provide enough help, further food aid could also be necessary for a longer period, especially since livelihoods of the people got destroyed and unemployment is high. In order to improve the hygienic situation it should be tried to get the mud out of the houses and streets and dry the places. Tools like shovels would be very helpful in this context. Money- or food for work projects could serve as an incentive for the whole community to engage in corporate work. The hardest hit families are in high need of building material to reconstruct their houses.
As further flooding can not be totally ruled out in the future, and as living conditions of most families are not adequate due to a lack of space and access to drinking water etc. a future resettlement of the affected population has to be reconsidered.
It was sad to see under what conditions people currently have to live. That living conditions under normal conditions are not adequate either made it even sadder to see how people suffer. At the same time I was very positively surprised how optimistic people seemed to be and how friendly they still are. We were very warm welcomed, people helped us to get information and show us around. Their creativity in designing solutions to cope with the situation is impressive and that their community seems to be well organized and that it was easy to find volunteers to prepare the aid gives hope that they soon will be able to recover in case they get further external help.
M.A. Reg. Studies
International Humanitarian Action