“The government is over-achieving in the reconstruction of roads and bridges and totally neglecting the needs of the victims.”
By MARYA SALAMAT
MANILA – Four years since the super-typhoon Yolanda (international name Haiyan) hit the Philippines, a disturbing pattern of response has emerged from the government. Whether under the former President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino or current President Rodrigo Duterte, its stock responses wreak tragic consequences for the victims but promise heady results for big businesses’ expansion. This is one of the conclusions in a research conducted by Ibon Philippines in the Visayas. During a forum held November 8 in Quezon City, the non-government thinktank shared the findings, recommendations for changes and some good examples of community-based practices in the past four years of post-Yolanda “rehabilitation.”
They expressed alarm over the government’s stock responses because the same is feared to also be in the works for other disaster-ravaged areas in the country, whether the disaster is natural or man-made. Amirah Lidasan of Moro-Christian Peoples’ Alliance said the rehabilitation plans for the ruined Marawi show disturbing similarities with what Ibon has flagged in the Yolanda rehab.
Natural calamities occur regularly in the Philippines. Ibon executive director Sonny Africa recalled that four years ago, they wondered if, with super-typhoon Yolanda a global news at the time, the “normal” government response and the recurring problems in facing disasters could perhaps finally change. Unfortunately, Africa said, “if there are fake news — the spread of wrong information to sway public perception – there is also fake rehabilitation.”
Ibon researchers spent time digging into government reports and data on post-Yolanda disaster “rehabilitation” and living in the typhoon-ravaged communities.
Both the government data and the many “anecdotes on the ground” showed the Ibon research team that “the government is over-achieving in the reconstruction of roads and bridges and totally neglecting the needs of the victims.” Rosario Bella Guzman, head of Ibon research department, said the government’s focus has been more on rehabilitating the needs of big businesses rather than the needs of the people.
The so-called rehabilitation may be producing positive statistical outcomes, such as the reported 12.4 percent growth in 2016 in Eastern Visayas. But, Guzman said, these are “shallow and unsustainable.” She asked: “Who benefits from constructing or widening roads, hotels, malls when capital formation in agriculture is at its lowest?”
Neglecting the typhoon survivors on many fronts
From the first few months to every anniversary of typhoon Yolanda, the survivors have decried as criminal the slowly delivered and scant relief. Through the People Surge alliance of Yolanda survivors, some of them visited the capital to hold dialogues with government officials including the Secretary of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) at the time, Dinky Soliman. The latter met the survivors in her office but countered their complaints with claims that the DSWD had been doing what it could, that it had released relief through the local government.
Four years later, Ibon took note of the report of former Social Welfare Secretary Judy Taguiwalo – who replaced Soliman in 2016 – that due to local government units’ inefficiencies, the emergency aid started to be distributed only a year after Yolanda. Aside from irregularities in its distribution, to this day, much of the funds remained unliquidated, Ibon said.
The budget for disaster, said Guzman, is still part of the pork barrel, or under the discretion of a few government officials like the president. Based on their findings, patronage politics contributed a lot in throttling the flow of aid and in slowing projects for the survivors such as housing.
After four years, just 50,891 or less than a fourth of the 205,128 target housing was built by the government, and it was just 27 percent occupied, Ibon said.
One of the reasons for the low occupancy rate was the complaint that the housing is substandard. Some are described as “dancing houses” because its foundations or walls are flimsy.
Of the 86 resettlement sites, only five have water. The government reported that 59 resettlement areas have power, but, Guzman said, only 12 of these resettlement sites actually brought power to the houses within it.
Considering that the region hardest hit by super typhoon Yolanda is mainly agriculture-based, agricultural recovery had not been prioritized by the government in the past four years of “rehabilitation.” Ibon’s study documented the consistent neglect of farmers’ needs to re-fertilize the soil, replenish the seeds they lost to the typhoon, freely avail of a working irrigation, combat pest infestations of what remained of the crops, and have something to tide them over as they (hopefully) regrow crops such as coconut, rice and corn.
Ibon researchers heard complaints that up to now, even cash-for-work programs did not work for families in need as those who worked in 2014 said they have not yet been paid by the government until now. Neither did the Department of Labor and Employment’s program targeting to teach livelihood skills to 114,923 beneficiaries gain much headway. Ibon said the DOLE reported just 54,374 beneficiaries.
Former Social Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman had requested an increase in CCT (conditional cash transfer) allocation which she coursed through Kalahi. But, Ibon’s Guzman said, their research revealed a 75 percent dissatisfaction rate on its late releases.
What Build Back Better? Anti-poor neoliberal programs gaining headway thru ‘rehabilitation’
The Aquino government’s “Build Back Better” is the same template being pursued under the Duterte government’s Build Build Build. Guzman said “Build Back Better” is a misnomer on many counts.
She said the villages of Haiyan-ravaged communities don’t really enjoy health services. “There are health centers that are padlocked. Health centers that have been overtaken by goats. There are no hospitals in the Eastern Visayas provinces. The sick have to go to Tacloban.” Of the 72 hospitals in the region before super typhoon Yolanda, only 42 remained. The Department of Health did not rehabilitate 27 public hospitals.
She said the region recorded the lowest net school enrolment rate at 89 percent. One of the obvious reasons is the extent of still unrehabilitated classrooms. Another reason is the lack of good, passable roads that could take them from their farms to the schools. In many instances, Guzman said, schoolchildren have to walk for more than an hour just to get to their school.
As for water and sanitation, much of the Yolanda-ravaged communities in the Visayas rely on water pumps to source their water. Pipe connection is still very low, said Guzman. She said irrigation is even more neglected.
Ibon’s Guzman likened the “Build Back Better” and now Duterte’s Build Build Build to disaster capitalism similar to that described in Sri Lanka and also in the US after Hurricane Katrina. Guzman recalled author Naomi Klein’s observations that big businesses aided by governments are taking advantage of the shocked condition among the people during disasters to introduce changes that produce more sufferings for the people, in the long term, such as privatization and users pay principles in the economy. For example, public schools were converted into charter schools following the “rebuilding.” Charter schools no longer get substantial allocations from the government and are forced to drastically cut back on costs and find ways to earn, for example by raising school fees. These changes could have met resistance from the people in ordinary times.
In the Philippines, Guzman said, the people are not as shocked but are used already to calamities, and the business groups work with bureaucrat capitalists to take advantage of wars and disasters and introduce more neoliberal reforms. She specifically noted the government failure to rebuild public hospitals and schools in Eastern Visayas, and the moves to push away citizens to favor land use conversion for tourism, malls, hotels and other big businesses that are slated to be established during the “rehabilitation phase.”
Guzman said the No Dwelling Zones imposed by the government in coastal areas, and the clearing/relocation of those whose houses would be hit by the construction of Leyte Tide Embankment, are resulting in the forced dislocation of the people.
It is not as if the people are indeed being secured with the forced demolition, she said. In both cases, she noted that the bigger establishments such as malls and hotels are untouched and allowed to remain but the poor, including the fisherfolk, are being forced to relocate. Guzman said they found out in their research that there had been no genuine consultations nor inclusion when the Leyte Tide Embankment, for example, was planned and approved by the government. “Although the government said they are clearing identified hazard areas, they are favoring other structures to construct and operate in that same area,” Owen Migraso of the Center for Environmental Concerns said during the Ibon forum. Last month, a number of houses in Bgy. Barras, Palo, Leyte had been demolished, Migraso said.
Increasing people’s vulnerability to disasters
Asked about the long-term implication to sustainability of the government’s response, Guzman cited the coconut as a ready example. Coconut used to be an abundant Eastern Visayas crop.
“If, immediately after Yolanda, the government listened to the survivors’ demands to help them plant new coconuts, by this year and next it would have started bearing fruits already,” Guzman said.
Unfortunately, she said, the government supported the planting of hybrid coconuts which will bear fruits in three years. But unlike the indigenous coconuts that bear fruits even it already a hundred years old, the hybrid coconut is good for just three years.
Guzman said the neglect of coconut will not only lead to hunger among farmers but also to the continuing decline in Philippine coconut production.
Four years since Yolanda, the people’s demand continues to include the farmers’ and fisherfolks’ access to land and fishing grounds. Ibon reiterated the sustainability of pursuing land reform. Since the Philippines is “a typhoon highway,” the group reiterates that this is the better way to solve the hunger and poverty problem, as well as increase the community’s savings and resilience in facing natural calamities.
In the short-term, the recovery should not only ensure systematic and better evacuation system — one which allows them to return to former livelihoods after the calamities – it should also prioritize improvements in the people’s livelihoods, Guzman said.