After Haiyan disaster, a solution to water crisis from above

Posted at 06/15/14 10:14 PM

MANILA, Philippines – It was supposed to be a regular assignment for ABS-CBN reporter Ranulfo Docdocan: cover a typhoon as it made landfall in Guiuan, Eastern Samar and report back to base. That assignment, however, turned out to be anything but ordinary.

On November 8, 2013, Typhoon Haiyan, known locally as Typhoon Yolanda, struck Guiuan with 275 kph winds and proceeded to wreak destruction through the rest of Samar and Leyte. Haiyan, a Category-5 super typhoon, made five more landfalls before exiting through the South China Sea. It is the deadliest Philippine typhoon on record, killing over 6,000 people and leaving thousands more missing.

Docdocan's crew was in Guiuan a day before the typhoon hit. When the typhoon struck, all contact was lost with the ABS-CBN Tacloban news team. Docdocan said the destruction brought by Haiyan was unbelievable, with entire houses ripped to shreds, coconut trees toppled and one sports stadium flattened.

Docdocan and his crew walked for two days in order to reach their home base of Tacloban, which was considered “ground zero” of the typhoon’s onslaught. Docdocan said walking was the only way for him to get home after all major roads were blocked with debris.

For food, the news team ate biscuits which soon ran out. For water, they drank their own supply before drinking coconut water that was given to them by people who sympathized with their plight.

“When the people found out that we were trying to get to Tacloban, they took pity on us and gave us coconuts. My biggest fear was not finding my family alive when I reach Tacloban,” he told ABS-CBNnews.com.

All those fears were laid to rest when he found his family alive after the storm. However, he and his family had to leave the city for awhile for their own safety.

“There was looting. When they couldn’t get any food from the warehouses, the looters would start going inside the houses,” he said.

Water scarcity was also an issue as the city’s water service was cut off. After running out of bottled water, some residents reportedly dug up water pipes and smashed them open.

There was also an issue of disease. Tacloban was hit by tsunami-like storm surges, which left floods in parts of the city. Hundreds of dead bodies littered the streets.

Docdocan and his family evacuated to Manila shortly after they were reunited. His ordeal, however, was not over.

“I contracted leptospirosis. My foot was injured while we were in Guiuan and it got infected when we started walking to Tacloban,” he explained.

Docdocan stayed in the hospital for eight days to receive treatment for his illness. Still, he was back to work shortly after. One month later, TV Patrol Tacloban was back on air.


For Docdocan and many residents of Tacloban, Haiyan bought a host of problems that lasts to this day. Many residents still do not have homes and are forced to live in tent cities or temporary bunkhouses.

Docdocan said there was no running water in Tacloban for the first three days after the typhoon hit. Deep wells in some villages were covered in muck and dead bodies, he said.

“Some people drank bottled water while others drank rainwater. I am thankful the taps started running by the fourth day but there were still many people who got sick of typhoid, diarrhea, leptospirosis…” he recalled.

Emelita Montalban, chairwoman of Barangay 88 in San Jose, Tacloban, said at least 1,000 people were left either dead or missing in her village after the typhoon.

Those who survived scooped water from streams or even smashed pipes of the Leyte Metropolitan Water District so that they could drink.

“It was really for survival. The scene after the typhoon was like the end of the world, people walking around like zombies, looking for food and water,” she said. She said many people got ill after drinking dirty water and at least one baby died of diarrhea.

She said officials should stock up on water before any typhoon. Deep wells were also a lifesaver, she said, noting that the water from the wells eventually became clean after several weeks.

Restoration of the water service by the Leyte Metropolitan Water District also turned out to be a mixed blessing. In early December 2013, a health department team reported coliform contamination in 29 water systems and advised Tacloban residents to boil their water before drinking.

Water and sanitation expert Azzurra D'Inca, who helped restore the water supply system in Guiuan, said many wells in the area were contaminated either with salt water from the storm surge, with dirty floodwater or with debris.

"Clean water is essential to people's health. We know from previous experience that a lack of clean water can cause outbreaks of waterborne diseases. It is not just about drinking water – it’s also about hygiene and sanitation. A lack of hygiene combined with a shortage of clean water makes people more susceptible to diseases. And when people get sick, they are more vulnerable," he said in an interview with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

UNICEF Philippines Representative Tomoo Hozumi also noted the importance of restoring the water supply.

"It's critical at the time of emergency that one maintains at least 15 liters of clean drinking water per day for each individual to prevent diarrhea and other water borne diseases,” he said in a UNICEF report.

“A steady supply of water also means that those affected can cook, clean and maintain good hygiene practices, and start them on the way to recovery and rebuilding.”


One solution for the water crisis in the aftermath of a severe typhoon could come from the heavens.

A study conducted by World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Bank of the Philippine Islands (BPI) Foundation revealed Tacloban in Leyte province was already experiencing increasing rainfall over a 14-year period even before Haiyan struck.

The study examined the history of storms in Tacloban and calculated average annual rainfall in the city from the years 1998 to 2011 at 2,494 millimeters (mm), which is higher than the average annual rainfall of 2,400 mm in the country. It showed average annual rainfall in Tacloban was rising "a dramatic 257% from 1,853 mm in 1998 to 4,678 mm in 2011."

"This is the highest rainfall, as well as the highest increase in precipitation, for all four cities assessed in Phase 3 of this project," the study said.

Tacloban was also cited in the study as the only city that had high susceptibility to both floods and landslides, according to existing geo-hazard maps.

The WWF-BPI study examines 12 Philippine cities and the possible effects of extreme climate events including storms, floods and droughts. It looks into different factors such as a city’s socio-economic sensitivity to climate events including population, land area, housing, number of schools and vehicles, air passenger traffic, tourist arrivals, foreign trade and even energy consumption.

It also assesses a city’s adaptive capacity in case of a major climate event such as a destructive typhoon.

WWF Philippines CEO Jose Maria Lorenzo Tan said one bright spot in the Haiyan disaster is the extent of humanitarian aid given by foreign groups and governments, the likes of which have not been seen in the country in recent history.

Still, there are some improvements that can be done in the event of another typhoon. He said that instead of shipping in bottled water for long periods of time, “on-site desalination or purification” is clearly better and cheaper.

He also said urged government to be resilient and invest in multi-sourced water supply under the “build back better” program.

“Don’t just look at groundwater but rainwater. Like Baguio, it is ironic that a city with so much rain has a water supply / water quality challenge. Increasing rainfall establishes that, for Tacloban, water supply options are virtually infinite. Water supply or quality should not be issues at all,” he said.

Ironically, there is already a Philippine law that mandated the construction of rainwater collectors in every barangay nationwide.

Republic Act 6716, which was approved in March 1989 by the administration of President Cory Aquino, ordered the Department of Public Works and Highways to undertake the construction of "water wells, rainwater collectors, development of springs and rehabilitation of existing water wells in all barangays in the Philippines in such number as may be needed and feasible."

The law envisioned the construction of 100,000 water wells, rainwater collectors, and springs by 1991. It also mandated the creation of a Barangay Waterworks and Sanitation Association for the purpose of maintaining the water facilities.

An environmental lawyer, however, has already petitioned the Supreme Court to compel government agencies and elected officials to follow RA 6716 and install rainwater collectors in barangays to address the twin problems of flooding and lack of clean water.

Lawyer Antonio Oposa Jr. lamented that like many of the laws in the country, RA 6716 “lies atrophied in the sickbed of non-compliance.”

Oposa said government should not just sell land for commercial development but set aside a portion of those areas to catch excess rainwater while turning other open spaces into parks and possible evacuation centers.

He also pointed to Singapore as an example of a government that saw rainwater as the obvious solution to solving a water crisis. Rainwater is collected through a comprehensive network of drains, canals, rivers, and stormwater collection ponds before it is channeled to Singapore’s 17 reservoirs for storage.

"Because it was very vulnerable to an uncertain source of its freshwater, Singapore, tiny as it is, has devoted almost 70 percent (or almost 50,000 hectares) of its land into water catchment areas," he said in an open letter to President Aquino published on his Facebook page.

Oposa said that for as little as 1,000 pesos, two people digging for two days could already set up a rainwater catchment pond that would absorb excess water into the ground to replenish the depleted groundwater table (aquifer).

He said local governments could set up artificial rainwater collectors that would stock up rainwater in large tanks during the wet season. A similar system was put up in Bantayan Island in Cebu before permanent waterworks systems were put in.

Oposa told President Aquino that he already has key people in government who can address the recurring problems of floods and water scarcity in the country.

"Mr. President, you cannot teach us how to breathe underwater. But you can guide us to unleash the Filipino genius of resilience and turn this adversity into an opportunity," he said.

He also urged officials to learn the “principle of the ant” and not turn a blind eye to the current climate crisis.

“Every year, we have too much water during rainy season and then have water scarcity during dry season. The solution is simple. Go to the ant and learn the principle of the ant. When there’s lots of rain, gather the rainfall so that when you need water, it’s already there,” he said.