Notes from the Field

Providing Children’s Books to A Stable but Fragile Tacloban

July 23, 2014

Last week, Typhoon Rammasun (Glenda in the Philippines) swept through the Philippines, killing nearly 100 people and continued on its deadly path battering China and northern Vietnam. Just 24 hours after Glenda hit the Philippines, I visited Tacloban, which nine months earlier had been devastated by Typhoon Haiyan, the biggest cyclone ever to have made landfall. While I was excited about the trip where I would participate in The Asia Foundation’s donation of much-needed books to schools in the region, I was also apprehensive about seeing in person the destruction that Typhoon Haiyan wrought on the communities.

Like most of the world, I watched with horror on TV as Typhoon Haiyan devastated the central Philippines last November. My family is from the Philippines and I have friends in the affected areas, so the tragic scenes that left over 6,000 dead hit close to home and also brought a deep sadness for the entire people of the Visayas region.

After departing the Tacloban airport, I was expecting to see destruction and ruin – there was plenty of that around – but there were also evident signs of rebuilding and a city slowly returning to normal. I thought that my colleague based in Tacloban described the situation the best: “stabilized but fragile.” There are still many people living in tents (many with the UNHCR logo), particularly near the airport. But there is also a thriving downtown area, with many small shops selling their wares, as well as a large Robinson’s Mall that just reopened a few days ago. We also visited the first bookstore to reopen after the typhoon – a small independent store owned by a writer who lost her entire book collection in the storm and is now rebuilding her collection.

As I thought would happen, I was so touched during the books turnover ceremony at Santo Nino Special Education center that I was teary-eyed. The book donation event, arranged by the Foundation’s Books for Asia program with support from American publishers and the Australian Government, donated over 8,702 children’s books to 11 elementary schools in the typhoon-ravaged city. Despite the crowded, hot room and seemingly never-ending speeches (mine was one), the children were visibly happy to receive the brand-new storybooks. Several teachers told us that the kids fight over the new books (I saw this later at one of the schools we visited). This made me think of my own seven-year-old daughter and how easy it was to go to the public library and how we take it for granted.

Book donation to Tacloban schools

The Philippine government is currently increasing the resources going to education but as of now is still dealing with a backlog providing the basics to typhoon-affected area. Students at Tigbao Diit Elementary School receive new books from American publishers through The Asia Foundation’s Books for Asia program and the Australian Government.

We visited three of the elementary schools that we gave books to – all in various stages of reconstruction. Most had functional classrooms, although some of these were temporary structures. Two of them had libraries –the others were destroyed in the typhoon – but most of the books that we saw were textbooks, and I didn’t see any storybooks. The Philippine government is currently increasing the resources going to education, but as of now is still dealing with a backlog providing the basics: teachers, classrooms, desks, and texts.

Anna Bantug-Herrera presents storybooks to Basper Elementary School students in Tacloban.

Anna Bantug-Herrera presents storybooks to Basper Elementary School students in Tacloban.

Clearly, the Philippine government – both national and local – still faces many challenges post-Typhoon Haiyan. These include: rebuilding and reconstruction after an unprecedented level of devastation; restarting livelihood activities; overcoming national, regional, and local governance and political issues; coordinating logistics and activities; supporting education; and raising awareness among the population about climate change and disaster risk reduction. Now that the immediate relief period is over, many international NGOs have transitioned their work to the Philippine government. This is a herculean task and requires close coordination – both among government agencies responsible for agriculture, public works and highways, and other sectors, as well as between the national, regional, and local governments.

One of the biggest challenges for the future is going to be reeducating the population about the effects of climate change. I was surprised and concerned to see informal settlements back on the riverbanks. All these structures had been washed away by the typhoon, but people wanted to go back to their old homes – despite being very close to the water. There have been some temporary and permanent shelters built but they are further from the city center, which makes it difficult to get to and from for work.

This has been said many times before, but the resilience of the Filipino people is truly incredible and amazing. They are picking themselves up – as one of the school principals said, “Life goes on.” Tacloban is now relatively stable, but the recovery is still in the early stages and quite fragile. More needs to be done to help these areas fully recover and also help plan and prepare for future disasters.

The book donation project is part of the long-running Philippines-Australia Community Assistance Program (PACAP), a small grants program managed by The Asia Foundation that supports civil society organizations throughout the country. Read more.

Anna Bantug-Herrera is The Asia Foundation’s associate director in the Washington, D.C., office, and recently served as the Foundation’s acting deputy country representative in the Philippines office. She can be reached at anna.bantug-herrera@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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