Ignoring international humanitarian standards yet another disaster?

It was in the wee hours of 17 December 2011 that I witnessed the whirling and whistling winds ravaging part of the ceiling of our family dwelling, even if there did not seem to be that much rain. Not only once nor twice, but several text messages came in from Kaloy forwarding the hotlines of the 4th Infantry Division (4ID), and informing me how colleagues had rescued some families of fellow Balay Mindanaw workers

Bibing at a newly pitched tent in Barangay Indahag. By Bibing Mordeno

It was in the wee hours of 17 December 2011 that I witnessed the whirling and whistling winds ravaging part of the ceiling of our family dwelling, even if there did not seem to be that much rain. Not only once nor twice, but several text messages came in from Kaloy forwarding the hotlines of the 4th Infantry Division (4ID), and informing me how colleagues had rescued some families of fellow Balay Mindanaw workers. He also requested everyone at risk to relocate as quickly as possible to the Peace Center for safety. At the same time, his words helped to strengthen my mind and spirit and to keep calm but also vigilant… for my three little ones, and the other family members. Dodong wasn’t with us that very tragic night. It was only in the morning that I realized the truly devastating effects of Sendong – the loss of lives and the missing family members, some swept into the sea as far as Camiguin and even Misamis Occidental, the countless injuries and the scars that unfortunately will haunt everyone who survived that night of disaster.

Based on the report of the weather bureau PAGASA stationed in El Salvador City, Typhoon Sendong was the 19th tropical atorm that entered the Philippine area of responsibility and the 2nd tropical storm that affected Mindanao in 2011.

PAGASA cited that in general, the destruction it caused in the cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan was due to the widespread excessive rains associated with strong winds – severely affecting communities living near the riverbanks, mountain slopes, and flood prone areas, especially those at the downstream portion of the rivers. Most deaths were caused by the sudden rise of floodwaters, spilling over from the river channels and bringing with them flowing mud, uprooted trees of various kinds and logs from the mountains that were carried away by the deluge of flowing water.

Around 70,528 families or 388,836 persons were reported to be affected, distributed throughout 184 barangays within the provinces of Misamis Oriental and Bukidnon, and the cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan. The number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) inside the evacuation centers reached around 4,870 families or 22,868 individuals, with another 34,955 families or 197,480 persons staying wherever they could outside the evacuation centers. The number of houses damaged in Cagayan de Oro, Bukidnon and Iligan reached 38,771 with 11,218 partially damaged and 27,553 totally damaged. As regards the number of casualties, 1,388 persons are now reported dead, but only 871 have actually been identified; 1,992 have been reported injured. All these in the locations of Cagayan de Oro, Iligan, Bukidnon, Misamis Oriental, Misamis Occidental and Zamboanga del Norte.

When the office decided to transform itself into a disaster response institution within 48 hours of the event, and with Kaloy’s guidance, we found ourselves involved in all sorts of tasks, despite the continuing demands of our everyday jobs before Sendong.

Balay Mindanaw has transformed itself into a relief provider. Almost spontaneously we found we were able to create the following major teams: resource mobilization and relief distribution (giving out incredible amounts of food and non-food items). Before we knew it, we had developed links with the regional office of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), the Disaster Response Multi-sectoral Group of CDO headed by the DSWD Regional Director Araceli F. Solamillo and Archbishop Antonio Ledesma. As the interventions proceeded, the teams for psycho-social services; water, sanitation and hygiene; and shelter evolved.

One outstanding personal experience for me, as a neophyte to disaster response, was my hands-on training with the team from Disaster Aid International (DAI) with Ed Cox as the team leader, along with his colleagues Hans and Dave, who had flown in to facilitate the installation of 100 family-sized tents for people urgently needing shelter.

When we asked Ed to share with us some of the basics of disaster response, he said that, as far as possible, setting up transitional shelters is not usually encouraged. Many times this can result in increased social problems, including congestion, shortages or poor access to food and water supplies, heightened risks of communicable diseases and poor nutrition, most particularly among children, the elderly and persons with disability. But in the case of Cagayan de Oro, we just had no choice because there were so many people needing some place to stay as soon as possible. An extended stay in grossly over-crowded evacuation centers (which are often simply covered basketball courts) was going to be worse!

So many of us from civil society organizations, local government offices, as well as from religious groups, are entirely new to the massive impact of a disaster like Sendong. Maybe it was because we found ourselves at the heart of a number of really intense and taxing conflicts. First off, we had to deal with a “first in-first out policy” on getting tents from DSWD’s storage; we also had to manage influential, but well-meaning people who, without malice, just wanted to help de-clog the classrooms being used as evacuation centers. The problem with the latter was not the intention but the fact that it was being done without enough preparation and joint planning so as to ensure the sustained and regular assistance to families that were being moved on to other sites. Meantime, there was a proliferation of groups doing profiling and surveys, overloaded the survivors with numerous interviews so that those groups could employ their own “disaster management tools” or fill in their matrices. That, and the annoying dominance of some groups who depict themselves as “experts” in disaster response – all the while ignoring, even if not quite deliberately, the “short cuts” they employed in facilitating community processes.

It was the DAI that stressed to us the importance of knowing what risks may be encountered before coming up with any decisions pertaining to the survivors. It made us realize the importance of having an inventory of support groups and their programs and services, which I later came to know as the 3Ws: who does what where? The question was also posed as to whether we were providing the right aid to the right people, a question that Kaloy kept telling us was crucial, explaining that Balay Mindanaw can only do so much. This triggered my senses. And finally, being asked whether our interventions would result in making the lives of the IDPs better than they were before or whether we were just coping with the situation, left me in silence. What I know is this: the learning has been massive and rapid, and there is little difference between the criteria we should apply here and the criteria of effectiveness we employ in our Reflecting on Peace Practice (RPP).

There are international humanitarian (SPHERE’s) standards: such as 3.5 square meters as minimum floor space per person, or 20 persons per classroom, 15 liters of water per person per day, 1 latrine per 20 persons or for one family, also ensuring that the new or temporary dwellings are accessible to major transportation and communication facilities. The standards also include the layout of tents so that there is adequate space between houses, as well as access roads, spaces for children to play, spaces for women (lactating/breastfeeding, bathing, washing), and the first expiry-first out as to disposal of food supply. When consciously applied, such standards ensure that no further harm can come to the IDPs. Such standards, however, have not been strictly observed during the interventions of the last 40 days.

Are the international standards just guides to consider or should they be strictly adhered to so that we can be sure that further disaster will not befall the worst affected? Is there really an argument that can justifiably say we should “contextualize” these humanitarian standards? Or is that just an excuse for an inexcusable compromise? Am I just too idealistic in saying these should be non-negotiables, and that it is our responsibility as local CSOs to establish the culture of adhering to these standards, that these should established as norms, that these should not be broken by simply invoking the word “context”?

I salute the dedication and loving compassion of a number of groups and individuals who consistently extended whatever support they could to help our affected brothers and sisters. Personally, I would like to thank Balay Mindanaw for the stock knowledge (especially on conflict transformation) and for the institution’s continuing passion to be with the most vulnerable sectors and groups in our society.

In closing, my love and prayers for the healing of the survivors, for those lives lost, for those until now are still missing, and for those who still suffer from fatal injuries. Quoting Archbishop Ledesma in his open invitation to the 40th day (Kuarenta Dias) after Sendong, he said, “This is also to remind us of our interconnectedness with nature, to awaken the call in each of us to unite and love the river, to respect its nurturing power and to make it life-giving again through our struggle to participate in its protection….”

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