Jan 12, 2013

Philippines - A Super Typhoon's Deadly Path

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The aftermath of Tropical Storm Bopha leaves a Mindanao tragedy

On Nov. 23, a tropical depression began to form some 450 km south-southwest of the island of Pohnpei, one of the four federated states of Micronesia. Originating closer to the equator than most tropical storms, it would make its devastating way across the Central Pacific towards the island of Mindanao in the Philippines.

Pablo was just one of 35 tropical depressions to hit the 7,000-island archipelago nation in 2012. Of those depressions, 25 matured into total storms. Fourteen grew into typhoons and five unofficially became super typhoons, classified as storms with sustained winds greater than 67 meters per second (0.067 km) or 150 miles per hour (240 km/h) by the Joint Typhoon Warning Center in Hawaii. As example of just how much bad weather is in store as climate change intensifies, the first tropical storm of the year formed in the Pacific on Jan. 1, 2012. The last storm dissipated on Dec. 28, according to the Joint Typhoon Warning Center.

On Nov. 26, the Joint Typhoon Warning Center, a joint US Navy - Air Force task force located in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, upgraded the storm to Tropical Storm Bopha.

Eventually, on Nov. 30, Bopha would be upgraded again, to a severe tropical storm and then, a few hours later, to a typhoon. At that point, it was located about 1,000 km east-southeast of the Micronesian island of Palau.

Bopha strengthened again on Dec. 2, eventually making landfall in the Philippines as a category 5 super typhoon, said to be the strongest storm ever recorded to have hit Mindanao. With winds gusting to 220 km per hour, it is believed to have been twice as devastating as Hurricane Sandy, which smashed into the eastern seaboard of the United States. (Typhoons are called hurricanes in the west)

Bopha, known as Pablo in the Philippines, would inundate entire villages and hamlets, flatten such a vast portion of Mindanao's US$500 million annual banana crop that it would raise global banana prices. It destroyed most of the Philippine tuna fleet and killed an estimated 1,900 people.

It wasn't that the Philippines didn't see Pablo coming. Classes were suspended, people were moved into school buildings, town halls and health centers - many of which were swept away as easily as the attap huts they lived in.

Farm water catchment basins atop mountains gave way, the honeycomb of unregulated and illegal gold mines with their primitive pollution catchment dams melted. Small-scale mining pockmarked many slopes, making them unstable and prone to landslides and flash floods. Hundreds of tuna fishermen at sea have never been heard from since.

Pablo didn't just sweep over Mindanao. It wheeled and came over the northern portion of the island three times. It was so devastating that the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration, known as Pagasa, announced that the name Pablo would no longer be used for tropical cyclones.

More than a month after Pablo, an astonishing 6.5 million people have been affected and more than 200,000 homes damaged or destroyed, according to the Philippines' National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council.

"It will take years for the agriculture industry here to recover, and many rely on, and actually live off, the plantations," Arturo Uy, the governor of Compostela Valley Province, which took the brunt of the storm, told the press. "Many are left without sources of income."

"We continue to need urgent assistance from the government, and international donors. This is increasingly becoming a humanitarian crisis," the governor said. Unfortunately, historically the Philippine government has been woefully unprepared to handle storm devastation despite the number of typhoons - growing as climate change warms the water in which they originate - that regularly sweep the country. The government failed to provide meaningful relief to the tens of thousands of people drenched by Typhoon Ondoy, which hit in 2009, for weeks after the storm had gone. Northern Mindanao, some 800 km. south of Manila, is a long way from the relief agencies.

According to a report by IRIN, a service of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the Compostela Valley has been the center of the country's banana export industry since the 1960s. Some 80 percent of residents rely on subsistence farming, producing such things as coconuts, vegetables, coffee and cocoa in addition to bananas. About two thirds of exported bananas are grown there, and about 150,000 people normally depend on the fruit for their primary source of income. The Philippines is the world's third largest banana exporting country.

The Agriculture Department has said over 200,000 banana farm hands and their families live on more than 42,000 hectares of plantations in Mindanao owned by large corporations, where they work for US$250 a month as sharecroppers - a relatively good wage in this impoverished region, according to the IRIN report. Many have migrated from other parts of Mindanao to escape a decades-old Muslim and communist insurgency.

Fortunato Yubi, who lost two relatives to a deadly Bopha-induced mudslide that washed out most of New Bataan town in Compostela Valley, told IRIN his family's small farm had been totally destroyed, and that they were subsisting on handouts while living in a shelter made of tarpaulin and wooden debris.

"There is no other job here for us. We've lost everything and we don't know where to go and how to start anew," the 60-year-old said. "This storm stole everything from us." Cedric Daep, a civil defense official from eastern Bicol Region sent to the devastated area to help local officials with camp management, told the UN agency the authorities must provide immediate sources of income.

"Cash-for-work-and-food programs must be increased to give the villagers, especially heads of families, some sense of purpose and productivity, apart from the usual needs such as food, water and shelter," he said.

Debris clearing remains a major concern, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported on Jan. 8, with a number of clean-up and cash-for-work efforts already in place.

Food insecurity
Meanwhile, the London-based medical charity, Merlin warned of increased food insecurity following extensive damage to farms and infrastructure, as food stocks begin to dwindle and many residents lack jobs.

"With homes and livelihoods destroyed, nearly 1 million people are in need of food assistance," Merlin's head for Asia, Gabor Beszterczey, said in statement. "The government believes that in the worst affected areas food aid will be needed at least until the end of March," he added, warning that the situation could deteriorate in the coming weeks, with diseases likely.

On Dec. 10, the UN and humanitarian partners launched the Typhoon Bopha Action Plan (BAP), appealing for US$65 million to provide emergency assistance and to help with recovery for nearly 500,000 typhoon-affected people over three to six months.

According to the UN Financial Tracking Service, as of Jan. 8, BAP is 34 percent funded with a total of US$22 million in pledges, commitments and contributions. A revised BAP will be launched in Manila towards the end of January, IRIN reported.

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