Poverty, poor urban planning increase RP's risk from typhoons - Katherine Baldwin

Posted at 11/05/09 6:05 PM

Residents wade through knee-deep floodwaters brought by Typhoon Ketsana in Taytay Rizal, east of Manila, Sept. 30, 2009. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

LONDON (AlertNet) - Poverty, poor urban planning and a lack of alternative livelihoods are keeping hundreds of thousands of people in the Philippines trapped in areas that are highly vulnerable to storm and flood damage as the typhoon season continues, aid workers say.

Despite a run of destructive typhoons in the past month that washed away homes and caused the worst flooding in 40 years, relief groups say many Filipinos return again and again to flood- or landslide-prone areas because they have little or no choice.

While the government is trying to provide better land for the so-called illegal settlers, it faces an uphill task to reverse years of poor urban planning that has left large sections of the population living in at-risk areas, particularly in shanty towns around big cities like Manila, which has been inundated with people from the provinces seeking work.

"One of the issues the government is trying to deal with is unregistered people living in makeshift homes, but this is not an easy task," said Terje Skavdal, head of the regional office of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) for the Asia-Pacific.

"The government is trying to relocate these people but the challenge is whether they want to be relocated. These makeshift homes are close to where they have their income. It's not just about giving them land, but ensuring this land is fit for purpose. These are challenges of the recovery phase that the government will need to face," he told AlertNet by telephone from Bangkok.

Some 86,000 people remain in evacuation centres, relief workers say, some in dire conditions, after three typhoons battered the Philippines since Sept. 26, killing more than 900 people and displacing millions. Typhoon Ketsana hit first, followed by Parma a week later and Mirinae last weekend. Typhoon Lupit approached the country but did not hit.

The Philippines, home to 92 million people, has one of the fastest-growing populations in the region and more than a quarter of its people live on less than $1.25 a day. According to the United Nations, 44 percent of the urban population live in slums.

The sprawling shanty towns block waterways, causing huge problems with drainage and sewerage. After flooding, rivers of garbage flow through the makeshift settlements. Hillside deforestation adds to the problem, putting the population at risk of landslides.

Typhoon Ketsana caused massive flooding in the Manila Metropolitan Area, or Metro Manila, in the main northern Luzon island, where some 12 million people live.

Valerie Lewin, senior programme manager for the Ketsana response at Oxfam, said she visited a riverside illegal settlement where many homes had been washed away by Ketsana.

"The people were saved because they had been warned in advance but I went there two or three weeks after Ketsana and they were already back there, rebuilding their slum house, just by the river," she said. "Then my team went back this weekend and the houses had been flushed away again. These people know they aren't safe but they don't have another place to go."

Readying for more Storms
Land issues, as in many developing countries, are highly complex and require long-term solutions, Lewin said.

With so many people in need of relocation, the government faces a difficult task to deal with people fairly, without angering other families who are in a similar if not quite so desperate situation, added Skavdal.

Relief workers say it will take several months for people to be able to move out of evacuation centres. Some of the centres are not suitable for evacuees - some people are being housed on basketball grounds with simple shelters, and many centres are overcrowded and have poor hygiene facilities.

The typhoon season continues through November and into December, meaning it is imperative that people do not return to unsafe settlements. In 2006, some of the worst typhoons came at the end of the year. Twenty typhoons on average hit the Southeast Asian country of more than 7,000 islands annually.

"A lot of education and persuasion is needed to convince these people not to go back to the former sites," said Minnie Portales, advocacy and communications director for World Vision Philippines.

The main challenge is finding alternative sources of income for people who have moved from the countryside to illegal settlements near the country's big cities.

"The government is encouraging people to go back to the provinces but many don't want to. Their children are studying in Metro Manila and they don't have a source of livelihood in the provinces," she said.

In a survey carried out in the Philippines in early October by the IBON Foundation, a research and education institution, 71 percent of the respondents rated themselves as poor, up from 67 percent in a July poll.

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