22 December 2006, Makati City. The government hospital in Daraga town is heaving. In fact, in the wake of typhoon Reming, one of the deadliest in recent times to strike the Philippines, it is running way over capacity. Almost 290 children and adults are packed into the facility, 40 more than it was built to accommodate.
“My biggest problem by far is water,” says Dr. Eric Raborar, the Health Emergency Management Staff Coordinator at the officially named Bicol Regional Teaching and Training Hospital, located in badly hit Albay Province.
Nearly a month after the typhoon pummeled the Bicol region, the hospital still has no running water as the piped system in Daraga was damaged and has not been repaired.
Three UNICEF tanks are the only source of drinking water for the entire medical facility. The 450-litre tanks, just inside the hospital compound gate, were delivered just days after the disaster.
“Thankfully we have these tanks. They are providing the hospital with its only potable water,” says Dr. Raborar, a man shouldering a heavy burden. The tanks have so far have been refilled once a day with water from the Office of Civil Defense, but there is no guarantee that the daily deliveries will continue, especially during the Christmas holidays, he says.
As soon as the tanks are replenished, women and children laden with plastic bottles – relatives of bed-bound patients and hospital workers - hurry to capture some of the precious liquid.
“I don’t know when we’ll have running water again. But I don’t think it will be soon as I’m told repairs will take quite some time,” Dr. Raborar says.
Reming and two other typhoons in September and October have also affected the water situation in villages and the countryside. According to the Provincial Disaster Coordinating Committee based in Legaspi, many of the open wells in the barangays have probably been contaminated by run-off from the flooding.
Contaminated water is causing disease. Dr. Raborar confides that the hospital in Daraga has so far diagnosed six cholera cases, all of them children. “And we fear there will be more,” he says. There are also cases of leptospirosis – a bacterial infection spread by the urine of animals. People who have spent lengthy periods navigating floodwaters are most the vulnerable to infection, he adds.
Diahrrea, though, is the number one cause of admissions to the government hospital, and the cases mainly concern children. Once diagnosed, the sufferers are given intravenous fluids. Because of the large number of cases, the hospital is now running short of syringes and other medical supplies, according to Dr. Raborar.
UNICEF has supplied 30 large-capacity water tanks to Albay province, as well as thousands of 20-litre water containers and packs of water purification tablets. In terms of rehabilitation, UNICEF will be working with partners to repair damaged municipal water systems and also to clean up dug wells in typhoon-affected areas.
Water is also a woe at the evacuation centers in Albay, where tens of thousands of people whose homes were destroyed are seeking shelter. Sanitary and hygiene conditions at these centers, located mainly in primary schools, are primitive, and it is a wonder that many children have not fallen sick.
At the Gogon Evacuation Center in Albay’s capital, Legaspi, almost 3,000 people share just 14 toilets – some of these cracked and barely usable – and 8 water taps. Continuous rain has flooded some of the grounds – water that is mixed with refuse and sewage from children who cannot wait for crowded toilets to relieve themselves.
Things are not much better at an evacuation center in nearby Busay barangay, housing 139 families. They have five toilets and a well at the back of the school for washing. Bottled water has been distributed.
“The overcrowding is difficult. We have to get up really early to use the toilets,” said 15-year-old Hazel Mirafuentes, whose family shares a small room with 16 others. Hazel, her parents and two siblings count themselves lucky to be alive. They escaped their house in the nick of time, just before a sea of mud and lava from the Mayon volcano, unleashed by the typhoon, cascaded down the slopes and buried all four walls and the roof.
Plans are underway to build tent cities in Legaspi and Daraga to house some of the homeless now in evacuation centers. UNICEF will participate in an assessment of these sites to ensure that water and sanitation facilities are put in place before the tents are erected.
Clean water and proper sanitation in Bicol, one of the most impoverished regions of the Philippines, were hardly abundant before the typhoon. Many families, particularly in rural areas, live in flimsily built structures that are habitually toppled by Bicol’s frequent natural disasters, forcing them to continually move and rebuild. Latrines are never part of the equation. Many adults and children simply relieve themselves in creeks, lakes and the ocean.
“Water and sanitation are big challenges in this region,” said UNICEF’s Colin Davis “But they are closely linked to poverty, which itself is reinforced by a non-stop cycle of floods and typhoons. Reming has been the most powerful in a generation, but if we can turn this crisis into a development opportunity – and we need funding for this to happen - that would be a boon for children.”
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