At a glance: Philippines

Philippines typhoon damage leaves thousands homeless and education at risk

© UNICEF Philippines/2006/Ruiz
Gina Bananiya, 35, and three of her four children at Gogon Elementary School, one of the largest evacuation centres in Legaspi City, located in Albay Province, the Philippines.

By Tani Ruiz

CAMARINES SUR PROVINCE, Philippines, 21 December 2006 – Bato South Central Elementary School in the province of Camarines Sur was destroyed by Typhoon Reming – also known as Durian – on 30 November. In the demolished classrooms, only scores of sodden books show any indication that the building was once used for teaching.

Reming, one of the deadliest typhoons in living memory to strike Bicol Region in the eastern Philippines, left behind many battered classrooms like this one.

“This is the strongest typhoon I’ve ever seen in my life. So many school rooms have been destroyed,” said a fifth-grade teacher at Bato Elementary School, Corazon Gasgas. “The trauma of this experience is hard to convey.”

In Albay, the province most affected by Reming, up to 90 per cent of all schools have been damaged, many beyond repair. Education for the nearly 1 million children in areas hit by Reming is now at risk.

‘Where will we teach them?’

Ms. Gasgas, who has taught at the Bato school for 21 years, was due to retire in 2007. But she displays little joy about that prospect in the face of what she fears will be some wrenching educational consequences from the storm.

“My concern is that education will be very affected,” she says. “The school will reopen in January, but how many children will come? And with classrooms destroyed, where will we teach them?”

In Camarines Sur, just 70 per cent of children attend primary school, and only 4 of out of 10 who start actually graduate. With many educational facilities now out of commission, attendance could plummet – putting education out of reach for the majority of children.

© UNICEF Philippines/2006/Ruiz
Several schools were destroyed by Typhoon Reming. This one, located in Camarines Sur Province, Bicol Region, had its side wall completely torn off.

Families live in schools

“We need help. We need buildings to be reconstructed,” said Ms. Gasgas.

For now, her school serves as an evacuation centre for 60 families. This is the only evacuation centre left in Camarines Sur, where most people who first sought shelter after the typhoon have returned to what’s left of their houses to start rebuilding.

However, in Albay Province, thousands of families whose homes were buried in mudslides and volcanic debris from Mount Mayon, or swept away by floods, continue to live in schools that still have classrooms intact. Conditions at these evacuation centres are harsh. Families are packed into small spaces, hygiene and sanitation are poor and food shortages loom.

Housing the displaced

Classes were suspended in Bicol Region after the typhoon but are set to resume in January. This deadline weighs on those who are sheltering in the schools.

Families are uncertain of where they will be going, but believe the government will somehow re-house them. There are plans to build several tent cities for the homeless, but there will not be enough room for everyone.

“If we can’t patch up or repair the schools quickly, we’ll recommend that tents be used to hold classes, and if we don’t have enough tents, then teachers will have to teach out in the open,” said a member of the Provincial Disaster Coordinating Committee in Albay, Cedric Daep.

Window of opportunity

Across Bicol, damage to schools has been estimated at $43 million, a fortune for a province with some of the highest rates of poverty in the Philippines. Besides supplying materials to help repair and rebuild the schools, UNICEF will provide school tents and packs containing vital items such as paper, pens and school books.

It is unlikely that education will return to normal before March, when the three-month school holiday starts. The break provides a precious window of opportunity for school rehabilitation.

But today, no one can say with any certainty what Bicol’s educational landscape will look like when the new school year starts in June.




21 December 2006:
UNICEF correspondent Elizabeth Kiem reports on relief efforts for communities in the Philippines stricken by Typhoon Reming.
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