VINCENT Basiano, 38, returned to the streets on November 8 to air their plight and demand justice over the “failed” reconstruction program of the government as the Philippines marked this year’s seventh anniversary of Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan).

While the country is reeling from another devastation brought by Super Typhoon Rolly on November 1, which was followed by Typhoon Ulysses on November 11, Basiano and his fellow survivors in Tacloban city hope that Filipinos will not experience the same “neglect and injustice” in the government reconstruction program.

The Community of Yolanda Survivors and Partners (CYSP), a broad coalition of 163 community organizations of typhoon survivors and 11 non-government organizations, reiterated that the Yolanda reconstruction “did not adequately address pre-existing vulnerabilities of survivors, such as those of informal settlers, fisherfolks, farmers and indigenous peoples.”

“Sufficient attention was never given to the community participation necessary to achieve a people-centered reconstruction process... There remains no effective mechanism to make erring officials and employees of agencies involved in the Yolanda reconstruction accountable," said CYSP.

The coalition includes NASSA/Caritas Philippines, the humanitarian, development and advocacy arm of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines, and other faith-based groups.

The group said that “while there have been well-documented inefficiencies and corruption at various levels of the bureaucracy, including wastage of relief goods, inappropriate and substandard shelter construction works, and anomalous distribution of emergency shelter assistance implementation... it remains unclear if anyone has been seriously prosecuted and made to account as a result of recommendations from these congressional investigations.”

“While President Rodrigo Duterte has repeatedly promised to punish corrupt officials, his verbal threats have never been translated into the actual exacting of accountability in the Typhoon Yolanda corridor,” read a statement from CYSP.

“All these send a dangerous message that serious corruption issues in disaster response can go unpunished. Hopefully, this will not happen to the survivors of Typhoon Rolly during reconstruction works; however, we have little reason to believe that anything has changed,” it added.

People Surge, another group of Yolanda survivors, maintained that the government’s response to disasters “has always been insufficient and highly ineffective.”

“While the common people amass nationwide sympathy that solicit huge sum of donations from non-government organizations and civil society organizations, corrupt politicians use these opportunities to juice profit from aid-funded projects that are supposed to cater to the needs of the victims. Government neglect and disaster capitalism are exactly the reasons why we remain in this horrible situation,” said the group, who has been lobbying for the prosecution of government officials over what they described as “criminal neglect” in the Yolanda disaster response.

In October 2019, the Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission urged the Office of the Ombudsman to file administrative and criminal charges against 12 officials of the National Housing Authority over the bungled housing projects in devastated areas.

Lack of security

“In Yolanda corridor, farmers who did not have legal papers affirming their land tenure or homeowners who did not have legal papers concerning their rights to land did not get the support they needed. For sure, there will also be property rights issues in the Typhoon Rolly corridor, especially in the housing reconstruction that, if left unattended, will delay the reconstruction process,” the coalition said.

CYSP maintained that the “link between housing and livelihoods was merely an afterthought, so that even after houses were declared ready for occupancy the rate of occupancy remains very low as people dread being without a source of income in relocation sites that are far from their sources of livelihoods.”

“Unoccupied housing units represent a massive waste of public funds, more than that, however, they represent a rejection of disaster recovery that has been imposed upon people,” it said.

In his small housing unit in Tacloban City alone, Basiano complained about his electricity and water supply.

“Our electricity and water connections were not free, contrary to the promise made by Duterte,” said Basiano in a report from Catholic news site Licas.news.

He also complained that the water supply in their resettlement site is not yet potable and available to everyone.

In December 2019, Basiano and fellow survivors wrote a letter to the Office of the President regarding their predicaments, but their letter was referred to the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG).

According to CYSP, Yolanda survivors continue to ask the government to fast track adequate electricity and water connections and to establish markets for their basic needs, especially food, as they have to travel and incur additional expenses just to gain access to their basic food needs.

“Many promises have been made, many ‘deadlines’ have passed and a variety of sporadic ‘temporary’ responses have been offered, but the people still wait,” the coalition said.

The storm survivors reiterated that “sufficient attention was never given to the community participation necessary to achieve a people-centered reconstruction process.”

“Serious problems arose and continue to this day as a result of solutions being imposed from the top, solutions which have often created more problems for and worsened the vulnerability of survivors, such as relocating survivors to areas without adequate social services and livelihood opportunities,” CYSP said.

“These have been the common issues in the relocation sites across the Yolanda corridor. To this can be added the lack of participatory mechanisms for survivors to provide grounded feedback for more effective tracking and monitoring of the overall pace and direction of actual reconstruction,” it added.

Disaster department

CYSP said in the aftermath of Typhoon Rolly’s destruction, the proposed establishment of a disaster management department is “both relevant and timely.”

“If there is one thing that Typhoons Rolly and Yolanda remind us of, it is that destructive typhoons that cause incalculable damage to life and properties are here to stay, largely due to the ravages of climate change,” it said.

“Disasters are here to stay – government’s responsibility is to address climate change and ensure effective disaster response management and coordination,” the group added.

Only seven years apart, Typhoons Yolanda and Rolly were considered to be two of the strongest typhoons in recorded history.

“That they came so close to each other is consistent with the worrisome prognosis of climate scientists that extreme weather events will occur more frequently as part of the ‘new normal’ under the foreseeable scenarios of climate change,” the coalition said.

Citing the lessons from Yolanda experience, the group reiterated their recommendation during the Typhoon Yolanda reconstruction “for the government to create a central agency that will manage, coordinate and oversee disaster response with a budget of its own – from disaster preparedness to actual recovery and rehabilitation.”

“As borne out by the experience of Yolanda survivors, the overall response was less than effective because of the institutional gaps resulting in clear lack of command and leadership in responding especially in times of massive disaster. Simultaneously, the current structure has, with some notable local exceptions, failed to sufficiently engender the effective participation of those most affected and most marginalized sectors in the design, management, implementation and monitoring of their own preparedness, mitigation and recovery needs,” it added.

While the government has its National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council (NDRRMC), which is tasked in assisting disaster preparedness and responding to emergencies, the group said this is “certainly not equipped to manage long term recovery and reconstruction, even as amendatory bills supposedly designed to improve its mandate and functions are pending in Congress.”

“As we proposed when the Duterte administration came to power, what is needed is a civilian agency with full authority to deliver the necessary support to disaster-affected areas. This cannot be solely in the hands of an agency under a department. As shown in the experience in Yolanda, an independent, stand-alone agency, is needed to oversee preparedness, response, recovery and long-term rehabilitation and reconstruction for disasters,” the coalition said.

While the president created the Inter-Agency Task Force on Yolanda Reconstruction that was supposed to coordinate Yolanda Reconstruction by virtue of administrative order, CYSP said: “it, too, turned out to be clearly inadequate because the task force was not empowered to lead and also had neither the budgetary control nor the personnel required to undertake effective coordination and management.”

“In fact, despite the task force, the reconstruction in Typhoon Yolanda corridor continued to be slow and ineffective as concerns of survivors were not given serious attention,” it said.

Accordingly, the task force was supposed to end in August 2020, however, it was extended until June 30, 2022, to pave the way for the completion of the housing project.

Secretary Karlo Nograles, head of the inter-agency task force, maintained that the rehabilitation in Yolanda-hit areas is a top priority of the government.

“In total, we have completed 135,765 housing units while 38,058 are ongoing construction,” Nograles said.

While the current pandemic posed some delays in the construction, the Palace official reportedly assured to finish the housing project before the president steps down from office in June 2022.

“Kami sa task force Yolanda, tuloy-tuloy ang pagtatrabaho natin. Yung pagbiigay ng housing units para sa naging biktima ng Typhoon Yolanda,” Nograles said.

Rolly, which destroyed over P14 billion infrastructure, killed 25 people in the Bicol region.

Yolanda also wiped out some P125-billion infrastructure and agriculture while claiming over 6,000 lives, mostly in the Eastern Visayas region. (SunStar Philippines)