By Mong Palatino, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Mong Palatino is a Philippines-based writer and former lawmaker. The views expressed are his own.
The images of the devastation wrought by super typhoon Haiyan as it hit the Philippines the past two days have shocked people across the globe. But be prepared for even more heartbreaking images and stories of the storm’s aftermath once reporters and rescuers are finally able to reach remote coastal towns here like Samar and Leyte Provinces.
Haiyan, the strongest typhoon this year, caused a tsunami-like storm surge that almost completely wiped out facilities in Leyte Province, killing thousands in the process. Indeed, early police reports are already suggesting the number of dead could top 10,000.
The scenes in Tacloban City alone are heart-wrenching. Dead bodies are everywhere, dazed survivors are walking the streets, and parents are desperately looking for food and water. Some sought refuge in the airport, but this was also destroyed during the storm. Evacuation centers and public markets have been flooded. Even the mayor of Tacloban reportedly had to be rescued from his home. Power lines are down and could take a month to be restored. It seems particularly cruel that the already powerless here literally now don’t have power.
After surveying the ruins in Tacloban, a Cabinet official likened the flattened houses to scattered matchsticks. A journalist reported that he felt like he was inside a washing machine during the storm surge. One survivor likened the eerie streets of Tacloban to a scene in the Hollywood zombie flick World War Z.
Tacloban is an urban hub with modern communications and transportation facilities, which explains why the world was so quickly able to see the deadly impact of the storm. (It is also, incidentally, the hometown of Rep. Imelda Marcos, the wife of former Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos).
But Tacloban, the capital of Leyte, which together with Samar Province comprises the Eastern Visayas region, is also one of the country’s poorest regions, an area plagued by hunger, joblessness, and deprivation. Typhoon Haiyan has therefore been particularly devastating for this part of the world, and has dashed all hope that the region’s people could be lifted with the rising Philippine economy.
In fact, while the Philippine economy is one of the fastest growing in the Asia-Pacific – growing at 6.6 percent last year – extreme poverty is a continuing reality for many in this country, especially those living in the country’s rural eastern corridor and coastal barangays (villages).
These are difficult times for the Philippines. But sadly for many Filipinos, this is not so much the year of living dangerously as living disastrously. Conflict on the southern island of Mindanao has wreaked the livelihoods of people there, while Bohol and Cebu Provinces are still recovering from a powerful earthquake that struck the islands just last month. Several Luzon provinces near the capital of Manila, meanwhile, have already been reeling from agricultural losses caused by flash floods.
Of course the immediate objective now is search and rescue, and Filipinos will welcome the fact that during times of crises like this, other nations will no doubt respond by sending aid and humanitarian assistance. But once the relief provisions have been distributed, will there be enough left here after the storm to kick start the economy at the grassroots level? The reality is that the Philippines cannot expect to live on charity alone. International aid cannot sustain even a subsistence economy, like that of much of the region that has been worst hit, and so it is essential that Filipinos rebuild with sustainability in mind.
Building for sustainability should also mean the country’s resources and rehabilitation efforts should be utilized with climate proofing in mind, and economic policies should be designed to prevent Filipinos from being constant disaster refugees. It’s no secret that the country experiences extreme natural events year round. Situated in the Pacific “ring of fire,” the Philippine archipelago is dotted with numerous volcanoes and active fault lines, not to mention the multiple typhoons that hit each year, such as last year’s typhoon Bopha, the world’s deadliest disaster of 2012.
Sadly, each natural calamity has only further exposed the government’s inadequate disaster preparedness. Weather tracking facilities have been revealed as pre-modern or non-existent in some places, while infrastructure such as communications equipment is far too vulnerable, further undermining already inadequate emergency mechanisms. All this is exacerbated by the rapid deterioration of the country’s natural ecosystem.
The Haiyan tragedy has reminded Filipinos of their resiliency as a nation, something that is giving hope to survivors and other victims of natural disasters. But this legendary Filipino spirit should also be invoked in our campaign for good governance. Before Haiyan wreaked havoc in the country, Filipinos were outraged by an expose of corruption involving the siphoning of public funds, including disaster funds, by prominent politicians.
This latest tragedy should be a reminder that while disasters will strike no matter what we do, cleaner, more efficient governance can sometimes help stop disaster turning into catastrophe.