Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Two serious storms hit the Philippines

Andrew Matheson, New Zealand ambassador to the Philippines, writes about the two serious storms that hit the Philippines recently.

Some of the massive destruction to infrastructure in Benguet province as a result of Typhoon PepengThe Philippines is no stranger to tropical storms and typhoons. The country sits in a ‘typhoon belt’ and is typically hit by around 20 annually in the typhoon season that occupies the latter half of each year. On average five of those cause fatalities and significant damage.

But what was unusual this year was the country being ravaged by two major storms only a fortnight apart, that caused different types of damage but together resulted in more than 1,000 fatalities.

The events started on Saturday 26 September with tropical storm Ketsana. This storm, known as Ondoy in the unique naming system used by the Philippine weather service, sat stationary over the nation’s capital and dumped a record 455 mm of rain in just 24 hours — more than a month’s average supply.

One of the thousands of landslides in the mountainous Cordillera region, northern Luzon, that destroyed homes, infrastructure and agricultural livelihoods.Though quite a lot of the country was affected, the damage was most serious in and around Manila. And it was a tale of two cities. Much of the city, especially the housing of the middle and upper income portions of society, wasn’t badly affected — just water damage to housing and personal effects. But other areas were devastated — houses washed away, and others filled with stinking, contaminated water and mud. Eight weeks after Ondoy, significant areas of Manila are still flooded and inhabitants are still living in emergency shelters.

Just two weeks after tropical storm Ondoy the country was hit again. Typhoon Parma (known locally as Pepeng) crossed the northern island of Luzon, doubled back, then sat over the central mountain area of the Cordilleras and dropped record amounts of rain. Unlike with Ondoy where most of the fatalities were caused by drowning, with Pepeng the killer was landslides. The affected area is very mountainous with little remaining forest cover. Villages and farm houses cling to the hillsides, and many were simply swept away. In the nearby flat rice growing areas of Pangasinan province vast areas of crops were inundated, with many people’s homes washed away.

I had the opportunity to inspect flood ravaged areas on 10 November, by hitching a ride on a UN World Food Programme helicopter that delivered relief supplies to the remote village of Kibungan in Benguet Province, still cut off from the outside world a month after the typhoon. New Zealand Ambassador to the Philippines Andrew Matheson unloading UNICEF health kits in the remote mountain village of Kibungan.

The hillsides in the Cordillera region are scarred with fresh landslides, many taking away the terraced vegetable gardens that provide a livelihood for so many of the area’s people, and obliterating houses, roads and bridges. Repairing the infrastructure will be a long and expensive job.

En route to the mountains north of Manila it was easy to see how much rice-growing land had been ruined by being inundated first by Ondoy and then by Pepeng. Perhaps most surprising of all was flying over the shores of the large lake called Laguna de Bay on the eastern edge of Manila. All along the lakeshore houses, schools, shops and factories remain under water. It’s expected that it will take months for the level of the lake to drop sufficiently for these buildings to be able to dry out.Urban areas in Laguna province, near Manila, still flooded more than six weeks after Tropical Storm Ondoy inundated the area.

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