My two weeks in the Philippines began with two days of exploring. We hired a very small helicopter, which enabled us to land almost anywhere.
We flew over the east coast of the central island of Panay and surrounding islands. Almost everything had been destroyed.
We were the first people to reach some of the offshore islands, even a week after the typhoon had hit. In 14 years working for MSF, I have never seen people rush so frantically towards us when we arrived. Some people even jumped into my arms.
In the Philippines, people are used to natural disasters: a series of mechanisms is quickly activated within each community. Each district, or ‘barangaï’ as they are called there, has a chief who represents the community and facilitates relief operations. Our teams rely on them to set up aid deliveries.
People had prepared for wind and rain, as they usually do when there is a typhoon warning. But Haiyan also created a huge, tsunami-like wave. In some coastal areas, the wave was six metres high. Everything inside the houses was swept away but the most serious problem is that 95% of the boats were destroyed. This is a disaster because the boats are used not only for transport, but also for work by people living on the coast, who depend on fishing. I visited a coastal village on Panay where the two resources were fishing and coconuts. The typhoon had only spared one tree in ten, and the boats had been broken by the waves. If nothing is done, food supplies in months to come will certainly be affected. Soon, people will have to choose between rebuilding, food and boats. They will undoubtedly choose boats.
There is a lot to be done where water is concerned, the field that I’m involved in. The problem isn’t a lack of water, but a lack of confidence in the safety of the water. Also, many water sources have been made salty and caused damage to water supply systems. Depending on the type of water supply system and the damage incurred, we are distributing water purification tablets (Aquatabs) to homes, chlorinating wells, or repairing pumps or systems. We are focusing our efforts on Panay’s surrounding islands. The few boats still intact there were being used to transport water that communities had bought from other islands. Sanitation of water points would therefore mean that these boats could be used for other activities.
The typhoon has also caused more local disasters. In the port of Estancia, a parked barge has been turned upside down and the fuel oil has poured out. The oil spill is just a few metres away from the nearest houses. The smell is unbearable and the fumes are toxic for people living nearby. We have built two camps to temporarily rehouse those affected and to make sure they have access to drinking water and healthcare. Even though many other actors have come to Panay Island, few choose to set up their activity on the small islands that are difficult to access.