29 December 2006, Makati City. Coconut trees as far as the eyes can see hang limp, some, their leaves warped out of shape, others just bare stumps, their fronds whipped away by wind. It is a sad sight indeed. But there’s worse. The devastation wrought to the trees by typhoon Reming as it roared across the Bicol region of the eastern Philippines on 30 November has hurt the livelihoods of huge numbers of residents.
Coconut farming is one of the mainstay industries in Bicol, a region of low growth, high unemployment, and legions of impoverished families. The fishing industry, another big job provider, has also been thrown into disarray, with much of the equipment damaged, or blown away, and some natural fish reservoirs suspected to be contaminated.
“The typhoon has totally disrupted livelihoods,” said Fernando Gonzalez, Governor of Albay, the province in Bicol most severely ravaged by the typhoon. “In normal times we can’t provide sufficient employment for people. What do we do now?”
Coconut trees normally harvest every month, but “that is all gone now because of the storm. It will take at least two years to get the fruit back,” said Governor Gonzalez, working from a makeshift desk in the hallway of the municipal building where his office was damaged. In neighbouring Camarines Sur province, authorities say it will take 5-10 years to restore the coconut trees to their fecund state. Lack of coconuts will indirectly affect a lot of households. “The coconut oil industry will come to a standstill,” the Governor warned.
In Camarines Sur province, the calm and silky lake in Bato would seem to promise abundant pickings, but many fishermen are at a standstill. “People here rely on the lake for a living. But the lake is damaged. There are a lot of dead fish,” said the municipal mayor, Jaime Timbang Gonzales. He suspects the fish have been killed by sulfurous debris from the Mayon volcano in Albay province. Reming provoked giant mudslides from the slopes of Mayon which buried eight villages around its base. The Department of Agriculture is testing the lake’s water
Reming is certainly not the first typhoon to have caused misery and hardship – in a country prone to natural disasters, Bicol seems to be one of the worst sufferers - but Reming is reckoned to be the most powerful, leaving behind a staggering inventory of destruction and visibly altering the landscape. A series of other super storms just in the last four months has compounded the wreckage.
“This is probably worse than the (2004 Indian Ocean) tsunami, because the damage covers both inland and coastal areas,” Governor Gonzalez said, referring to Reming.
With farming and fishing in limbo, the most immediate problem for families is how to get hold of food.
“Here, you see our house has no more roof. My planted corn was heavily damaged by flood waters and mud. We have nothing to harvest now, " said Lourdes Eiles, a resident of Salvacion, a community of 1,000 houses in Camarines Sur Province. Most of the locals here are fishermen and coconut farmers.
“People are hungry,” said Leonardo Ibarlin, the barangay counselor, standing outside one of the “I’m worried about how all the families will manage.” He estimates that around 70 per cent of the houses in Salvacion were destroyed by typhoon Reming.
In Salvacion – as in most other rural areas of Bicol - the homes are simple structures, constructed from bamboo and Nipa (coconut tree) leaves. They are no force for power-packed winds and lashings of rain which tend to reduce them to nothing more than matchsticks. Almost certainly not for the first time, families in this barangay are erecting new shelters with whatever materials they can find, the cycle of destruction and rebuilding set to repeat when the next powerful storm strikes.
For now, many people who have lost their homes and livelihoods are surviving on relief aid, distributed by the government, with donations from humanitarian organizations, including UNICEF. UNICEF has dispatched rice, sardines, beans and many other needed items, such as blankets, tents, cooking pots, water purification tablets, and water containers. Deliveries are still continuing.
UNICEF and its partners are now planning the next stage of recovery: helping provincial authorities repair vital infrastructure, such as municipal water systems and battered schools. Getting the water taps flowing, the lights back on, and kids back in mended classrooms is a quid pro quo for restoring some livelihoods, especially for municipal workers and the service sector, even if it does not put fruit back on the coconut trees.
Substantial amounts of money will be needed to dig Bicol out of its typhoon distress. The UN has launched an appeal for $46 million to help the Philippines cope with the recent super storms, which includes aid for agriculture and housing. The hope is that rehabilitation will not just re-establish the status quo before Reming but aim at structural changes that will reduce the population’s vulnerability to cataclysms, ease poverty and create jobs.
New houses – indeed entire new communities – need to be built for those whose dwellings disappeared under a mass of volcanic lava in Albay province.
“Normally, one house costs around 50,000 pesos (around $11,000) to build. But we’re recommending 75,000 – 80,000 pesos for these new houses so they will be resistant to typhoons,” said Cedric Daep, of Bicol’s Provincial Disaster Coordinating Committee. That would mean securing high quality cement blocks and steel bars for reinforcement.
More complicated construction projects beckon. To protect vital installations and facilities in Legaspi City and nearby Daraga town that are threatened with flooding and volcanic mud flows, Daep says that a series of dikes are urgently needed – along with engineering assistance to get these projects off the ground. If some of the help comes through, the construction industry might even boom, providing new jobs.
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