Surviving the mysterious mountain
UNICEF was borne out of a need to respond to emergencies. When the world lay in ruins after the Second World War, UNICEF was formed to give food, medicines and clothing to children. The Philippines being in the Pacific Ring of Fire and the typhoon belt makes it prone to earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and storms. UNICEF Philippines assists and protects children affected by natural calamities through its rapid emergency response, working with the government to make sure children are given the support they need to rebuild their lives.
29 December 2009, Albay — Teresita Esplana, 63, waits her turn to receive a family water kit at the hilly San Andres Resettlement Site in the municipality of Santo Domingo in Albay. The cold December air lets out a gentle breeze while just ahead, in full view, Mount Mayon’s mouth spews out violently as wanting to disturb all that is cool and quiet in this Christmas holiday.
Teresita joins the more than 500 residents of Barangay Fidel Surtida who have been evacuated on December 20, since Mt. Mayon’s activity was declared at Level 4 which means that an eruption is imminent within days. The violent history of the Bicol Region’s Daragang Magayon (Lady Beautiful) is as famous as her “perfect cone,” having erupted more than 49 times in the last 400 years. Teresita has grown with the volcano’s lulls and starts, but like many Bicolanos, she holds amazing awe and respect for her fury.
“I felt really afraid because we thought that she would bury us and we wouldn’t be found,” she says. Thankfully, her family was brought to the resettlement where they could be safe.
For more than a week now, the former handicraft worker would look for food to feed her husband and adopted child. The days are long and every day, she longs to go back to the place she calls home.
“It’s hard living here because we don’t have enough water. It’s especially difficult for my daughter who is eight months pregnant. I don’t know when we will be allowed to go home,” she says.
While the Provincial Government of Albay is well equipped when it comes to disaster preparedness programs, it can only accommodate so much of the 9,000 families who are displaced because of the evacuation. The local officials sought the help of organizations like UNICEF to bring attention to the needs of more than 17,000 children who are living in the centers.
Within 48 hours of the official request made by Albay Governor Joey Salceda, UNICEF sent more than PhP 4.7 M in water kits and medicines to people like Teresita. Family water kits, each containing a pail, two collapsible water containers, a box of purification tables and soaps, enable a family to drink clean water for one month.
“UNICEF is the one of the first to respond in a real way, by sending the supplies that we need way ahead of the rest. We hope that they will continue to help the children of Albay,” the governor says.
Due to overcrowding in the centers, water and sanitation becomes a major worry for the local government. Dirty water can lead to the spread of water-borne diseases such as diarrhea, apart from the already problematic ashfall from Mt. Mayon that can cause respiratory and skin problems.
“UNICEF is also concerned for the health and well-being of the children near Mt. Mayon, that is why we are working closely with the provincial government to ensure that their needs are met. Apart from providing water kits, medicines and temporary classrooms and shelters, we are also sending support for breastfeeding mothers and conducting psycho-social activities so that children can go back to their normal routines,” UNICEF Representative Vanessa Tobin says.
Hope for the New Year
At the resettlement site, Teresita’s days are far from normal, as she and her family struggle to face the coming New Year in a very unusual way. Mt. Mayon’s already rumbling noise replaces what should have been firecrackers exploding in the distance, and the red-hot lava at its mouth in place of the usual pyrotechnics glittering in the night sky. Still, Teresita is hopeful and thankful, for she has her family intact.
“We are still happy that our family is together. We are also thankful that the local government and organizations like UNICEF do not forget about our condition here in Mayon,” she concludes.
Marge Francia is the Communication Officer for Media and Advocacy for UNICEF Philippines.