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One Year After Typhoon Haiyan, Hard-Hit Eastern Visayas Still Fragile

November 5, 2014

By Eric Aseo

Standing at the beach of MacArthur Park just south of Tacloban city in Eastern Visayas, the Pacific Ocean looks playful and gentle – a sharp contrast from a year ago when Super Typhoon Haiyan, “Yolanda” in the Philippines, pounded the region, leaving more than 6,300 dead and hundreds of thousands without homes and livelihoods. Arriving overland in Tacloban a few days after the typhoon and having been based in Eastern Visayas – the hardest hit region – it’s evident that the overall situation has stabilized. But it is also evident that the situation is still very fragile.

Typhoon Haiyan

A coastal community in Tacloban soon after Typhoon Haiyan struck. While much progress and reconstruction has been made, the area still faces challenges in restoring livelihoods and meeting mental health services. Photo/Eric Aseo

Rappler reported that, according to World Health Organization findings, an estimated 800,000 Yolanda victims have suffered mental health effects over the past year and that a tenth of those victims need continuing medication and support, including those suffering from post-traumatic disorder, depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia. The WHO has been training community workers to offset the lack of professionals who can detect mental health conditions and provide support.

Earlier this year, the Psychiatry Department of the Eastern Visayas Regional Medical Center reported a decrease in their mental health patients – down from 512 in January 2013 to 278 in January 2014. But this decrease does not necessarily belie the WHO’s estimates. The head of the medical center department attributes the decrease to people’s inability to access mental health services after Yolanda rather to an actual decrease in mental health cases.

In a post-Yolanda Social Weather Stations (SWS) survey commissioned by The Asia Foundation, as early as December 2013 survivors in the typhoon-affected regions, including the Leyte-Samar provinces, were already lamenting the lack of psychosocial help available. The Eastern Visayas Regional Medical Center has three doctors who treat patients, witness as experts in courts, and attend to walk-in patients. The rise in mental health cases after Yolanda was just beyond their capacity to respond or even document.

The mental health condition of survivors has become an unseen legacy of Yolanda slowly destroying those who survived. As if to call attention to this issue, in May this year a man believed to be a Yolanda survivor, jumped from the top of the iconic San Juanico Bridge that connects the islands of Leyte and Samar, leaving on the bridge his maroon slippers and a kitchen knife, his body disappearing into the strong current in the sea below.

As of October, the UN-OCHA reported that 320 people are still living in evacuation centers, 4,760 are in tents, and 19,700 are in transitional sites or bunkhouses. An estimated 95,000 households are living in unsafe and inadequate makeshift shelters, as they have lived even before Yolanda. Some survivors have also chosen to rebuild their houses in their former locations, often along coastlines as these are near their workplaces and sources of livelihoods. According to a National Housing Authority (NHA) official, of the displaced population needing shelter assistance, less than 1 percent, or only 142 families residing in Tanauan, Leyte and Tacloban City, have been provided with permanent shelters.

Typhoon Haiyan

In Tacloban City, 428 families remain in tents, 1,044 in bunkhouses, and 371 in temporary shelters in the northern part of the city. Above, temporary bunkhouses in Tacloban. Photo/Eric Aseo

In Tacloban City, 428 families remain in tents, 1,044 in bunkhouses, and 371 in temporary shelters in the northern part of the city. But the city government along with some of its partners are set to complete more than 200 permanent houses in time for the November 8 memorial, while another 200 will be completed before the year ends. Another 1,999 units are in the pipeline.

Some community leaders in Samar blame the NHA for the delay of constructing permanent shelters. In a recent dialogue between community leaders and national government agencies, a woman community leader from Marabut, Samar, said that their provincial government was already set to buy land for resettlement but the NHA intervened. A donor was also raring to build permanent houses for the victims but was discouraged by the elaborate process and stringent requirements of the agency. To address the shelter issues, the municipal government of Marabut has decided to set up a local housing board, an innovation in their approach to the shelter program.

Despite numerous accomplishments, and a recovery pace that is faster than equivalent experiences elsewhere in the world, there is an understandable growing demand among the typhoon victims for faster and more efficient interventions from the government. Also, from those affected, there is a growing demand for all service providers to exercise transparency and accountability in extending help to the victims. Some local legislative councils in Samar, for example, are planning to come up with resolutions requesting the NHA to relax some of its policies on land acquisition and development. NHA would only purchase and develop big parcels of land as resettlement sites and these lands should have titles. But according to a local NGO, the Samar Development Agenda Consortium, these big parcels of land are usually far from the fishing grounds and farms of the typhoon victims. Most of these lands also don’t have titles as landowners in this part of the country only have tax declarations to show ownership.

While the economy has started to recover, it is still a long way off from its old vibrancy, and still farther from the promised vibrancy of a “built-back-better” economy. The Post-Disaster Needs Assessment for Eastern Visayas posted the damages and losses to the economic sector at Php 51.5 billion and the recovery and reconstruction needs at Php 22.8 billion. In agriculture, the damage and losses was estimated at Php 34.5 billion and the estimated recovery needs at Php 16.4 billion.

The government has yet to implement big ticket projects that will help agriculture  bounce back fast. One year on, the Department of Agriculture has only allocated Php 483 million for recovery efforts in Eastern Visayas. Much of this was used to purchase rice and corn seeds, farm tools and tractors, fertilizers and biologics, and livestock. While the boats provided by the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources and private funders have been helpful to fisher folk, according to one fisherman from Basey, Samar, some of them have even received two boats, but their fish catch has been dwindling and illegal fishers are back competing for the scarce resources of their municipal waters.

Most projects to boost the economy so far have been implemented by INGOs and mainly targeting local communities and the agro-fishery sub-sector. While some of the projects are disjointed and production-focused, they serve the purpose of providing food on the victims’ table, and in some cases, helping the victims generate additional income for their families.

For example, the Philippines-Australia Community Assistance Program (PACAP-Yolanda) has initiated projects in the areas such as banana farming and egg production that have already generated additional income for 65.3 percent of its beneficiaries. But while they earned additional income, that same percentage of beneficiaries still say they are worse off financially than they were before Yolanda struck. It’s important to note, however, that this area was one of the poorest in the country before the typhoon struck, making recovery more challenging. PACAP-Yolanda plans to respond to this by focusing on a few crops and commodities and helping their partner-beneficiaries go beyond production and on to consolidation, processing, and marketing.

In Tacloban City, business seems brisk again, with the buying power of consumers increased by the cash-for-work projects and with all the reconstruction projects going on. But if the number of licenses issued and taxes collected by the city government are any indication, business is still sluggish. As of October this year, only 7,708 firms have renewed their business licenses, compared to 12,900 last year before the typhoon. The business taxes collected as of Oct. 31, 2014, only amounts to Php 156.6 million, much lower than the Php 370.6 million collected by the end of October 2013.

According to Tacloban Mayor Alfred Romualdez, the city government included in its rehabilitation plan the idea of a funding facility where local businessmen can borrow to restart or infuse more capital into their businesses. But unfortunately this part of the plan has not yet been funded, he said. The Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry seems to agree with the Tacloban City government. By the end of November, they are opening a Business Recovery Center in the city to provide support to micro, small, and medium enterprises, and help revive the economy of Eastern Visayas.

One year after typhoon Yolanda, the work for everyone and for the survivors remains herculean. For the survivors, remembering the death of family members and the destruction of entire communities adds to the burden, but recovery must  continue. Backing down is not a choice.

Read previous In Asia coverage of Typhoon Haiyan recovery efforts here.

Eric Aseo is a program officer for The Asia Foundation in the Philippines. He can be reached at eric.aseo@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not necessarily those of The Asia Foundation.

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