UNHCR helps improve life for Filipino victims of climate change

News Stories, 11 June 2010

© UNHCR/R.Reyes
Children displaced by storms in the Philippines learn about community leaders.

ANTIPOLO, Philippines, June 11 (UNHCR) Tossed by one typhoon after another, Maria Teresa Cawili is now grateful for small mercies like having a space of her own after spending months in crowded evacuation centres for victims of the Philippines' many recent natural disasters.

Cawili is among 1,000 people relocated recently to a dusty hill at San Jose village in this Catholic pilgrim town of Our Lady of Good Voyage in Rizal province, about 30 kilometres from the capital, Manila.

They were victims of violent back-to-back storms last year in what meteorologists described as a preview of more devastating winds that are likely to hit the country as a result of climate change. The Pacific churns out a score of typhoons annually toward the archipelago, but storms Ketsana and Parma last September and October were particularly fierce.

For now, the evacuees in Antipolo are huddled in tents under a scorching summer sun as the government and aid agencies draw up plans to construct shelters of corrugated iron roof, thatched bamboo and hollow blocks in 40-square-metre plots before the onset of the rainy season this month.

"It will be a dream come true," says Cawili, a 46-year-old mother of five girls, and a camp leader whose family received linoleum, mattresses, blankets, thermos flasks, kettles and buckets from UNHCR last December. Before moving to this site a few weeks ago, her family and the other evacuees received underwear, towels, detergent and shampoo from the UN refugee agency.

She was at home in nearby Cainta town on September 26, 2009, when Ketsana dumped a record amount of rainfall that sparked the worst flooding in the Philippine capital in memory.

The raging torrents swept away her ramshackle hut and about a thousand squatter shanties at a riverside flood spillway the following day. Her prized possessions a TV set and DVD player disappeared in the flood.

All told, Ketsana and Parma, which struck a week later, left 1,000 people dead and destroyed a quarter-of-a-million houses. The Department of Social Welfare and Development, along with local government units and the armed forces, mobilized resources to deal with the catastrophe.

"They did an extremely good job helping their citizens," said Bernard Kerblat, head of the UNHCR emergency team who joined relief operations in the disaster zones following an appeal for assistance by the cash-strapped government.

State agencies and aid organizations are still assisting about a million people displaced by the storms eight months later, tens of thousands of them crammed in makeshift camps in the hard-hit provinces of Rizal, Zambales, Tarlac, Pangasinan and Benguet.

The government has banned the evacuees from returning to their flood-prone villages. The San Jose relocation site, where UNHCR is providing support, is the first for the thousands of homeless storm victims in encampments on Luzon island.

For Cawili, it's a welcome change from the crowded gymnasium at Cainta where she and her family had stayed for six months and from the nearby school where they stayed for several weeks before that. But like the 30 million other Filipinos living on just a dollar a day the poverty threshold defined by the World Bank Cawili is just trying to survive. "We need to earn a living," she says.

UNHCR and its implementing partner, the Community and Family Services International, are helping the evacuees cultivate gardens to provide extra food. They are also asking government technicians to conduct training on organic farming.

The refugee agency is purchasing three motorized tricycles to be operated by the community to transport commuters on a dirt road up to the national highway.

UNHCR also has identified malnourished children, the elderly and the sick at the site for special assistance, and is providing psychosocial counselling against gender violence.

The refugee agency is providing toys for a daycare centre where Cawili's children play, and basketball and volleyball tournaments have been organized for older children at the site.

UNHCR has had to take money for these activities from its emergency reserves. "We certainly can do a lot more," says Kerblat. "There's a lot to be done."

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Climate Change

The earth's climate is changing, and that concerns us as it could lead to displacement.

UNHCR and Climate Change

Where people flee, UNHCR is there to help.

Climate change and displacement

In the past few years, millions of people have been displaced by natural disasters, most of which are considered to be the direct result of climate change. Sudden weather events, such as Myanmar's Cyclone Nargis in 2008, widespread flooding in Kenya's Dadaab refugee camps in 2006 and the drought that hit Ethiopia in the 1980s, can leave huge numbers of people traumatized and without access to shelter, clean water and basic supplies.

The international community has entrusted UNHCR with responsibility for protecting and assisting people who are forcibly displaced and who cannot return safely home. Although the majority of people displaced by climate change will remain within their own borders, where states have clearly defined responsibilities, additional support may be required.

When called upon to intervene, UNHCR can deploy emergency teams and provide concrete support in terms of registration, documentation, family reunification and the provision of shelter, basic hygiene and nutrition.

Among those who are displaced across borders as a result of climate change, some will be refugees while others may not meet the definition. Nevertheless, many may be in need of protection and assistance.

Climate change and displacement

Typhoon Haiyan Devastates the Philippines

An estimated 13 million people were affected when Typhoon Haiyan struck the central Philippines on November 8. Thousands were killed and about 3 million are believed to be displaced - some of them living in evacuation sites, others on the ruins of their former homes. Tacloban City in Leyte province was one of the hardest-hit areas. A week after the typhoon made landfall, large parts of its coast remain flattened and piles of debris still line the streets. Working with the Philippines government and UN and NGO partners, UNHCR is airlifting emergency supplies for thousands of survivors. The agency is delivering tents, plastic sheets, mosquito nets and other critical aid. It is also co-leading the protection cluster with the government, working to identify vulnerable people and ensuring that they have access to basic assistance and services. UNHCR has appealed for US$15 million to meet these critical needs. UNHCR is now present in Tacloban and Ormoc in Leyte province, as well as Guiuan in Eastern Samar province.

Typhoon Haiyan Devastates the Philippines

Typhoon Haiyan: On the Road to Recovery Six Months After the Storm

Six months after Typhoon Haiyan carved its deadly and destructive path through the central Philippines and forcibly displaced 4 million Filipinos, the area is like a big construction site as people get on with rebuilding their flattened homes as well as their lives. Many have moved into renovated homes while thousands of those who fled to cities like Cebu and Manila have returned home. But large numbers still live in tents or former evacuation centres; full recovery is still some way off and many people need help. UNHCR is working with the government and other partners to address the challenges and find solutions for the displaced. The refugee agency has provided assistance to more than 600,000 people, distributing shelter materials and household items, including solar-powered lanterns in areas where there is still no electricity. UNHCR is also supporting a government-led mobile civil registration project to give 100,000 people continued access to social welfare, education and employment. Photographer Jeoffrey Maitem marked the six-month milestone by visiting communities recovering from Typhoon Haiyan.

Typhoon Haiyan: On the Road to Recovery Six Months After the Storm

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