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One month ago—on Nov. 8—the strongest typhoon ever to make landfall plowed into the Philippines with sustained winds up to 195 miles per hour and a storm surge more than 16 feet high. In the wasteland left behind, at least 5,700 people were dead and more than four million had nowhere to live.
In the four weeks since that terrible day, Oxfam has been able to help nearly 250,000 survivors on the islands of Cebu, Leyte, and Samar. Top among the agency’s concerns has been to provide families with clean water, while helping to ensure good hygiene and sanitation services—all critical in preventing the outbreak of waterborne diseases. The organization has installed water tanks, built emergency toilets, and distributed thousands of hygiene kits loaded with essentials such as soap, toothpaste, and underwear.
“The hygiene kits are a big help to us. We lost most of our things and don’t have money to go to the market to buy anything so everything is useful,” said Romeo Rosello, who lives on the island of Bantayan. “There’s nothing that’s not useful.”
In the hard-hit city of Tacloban, in Leyte, Oxfam worked with the local authorities, UNICEF, and a local partner organization called A Single Drop for Safe Water and within a week of the disaster had restored the water supply for 80 percent of the residents. South of Tacloban, in rural areas around Palo, Tanauan and Julita, the organization has mobilized more than 5,000 people to clear debris, which has helped speed the response. And on Bantayan island, Oxfam has engaged more than 51,000 people in clean-up efforts.
“It’s been immensely challenging to get aid through, but the response from both the people of the Philippines and the international community has been amazing,” said Justin Morgan, the director of Oxfam’s programs in the country. Oxfam is also scaling up its work with Bulig Kababayen-an, a woman’s group anchored by the Rural Women’s Coalition, a network of organizations that are collaborating to address the specific relief and recovery needs of women.
Despite the progress Filipinos and aid groups have made in the past month, a great deal of work remains to be done especially in hard-to-reach areas. Oxfam’s goal is to help 500,000 people.
“Our main concern now is reaching rural communities who have not received anything like adequate assistance yet and making sure communities are able to quickly rebuild their homes, infrastructure and livelihoods in a way that will make them more resilient to future shocks,” said Morgan.
Farmers in particular need help. The typhoon wiped out a third of the country’s rice-growing areas just as the harvest was coming in. The window for replanting is very small: Oxfam has purchased 400,000 kilos of rice seeds to distribute to approximately 10,000 farmers in time for sowing in the middle of this month—the height of the planting season.
A climate threat
And looking ahead, there are concerns for the future. The Philippines is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world, enduring, on average, 20 typhoons a year. Though Haiyan was unprecedented, it could also be a harbinger of what the future might hold.
“Haiyan is the shape of things to come—with climate change set to increase the severity of typhoons in the region and projected sea level rises to compound the effects of deadly storm surge,” said Morgan. “The Philippines will need sustained support and programs to prepare for more storms like this. Ultimately, it also needs action on reducing the threat of climate change.”