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What a typhoon survivor taught me about humanitarian aid

Credit: IsraAID

As we trekked up the hill to the other side of the village, we came to a clearing where a small house overlooked a farm. That’s where we met Asuncion.

Asuncion, 79 years old, said that Super Typhoon Rai was the most intense storm she’s ever experienced. She’s lived her whole life in Ilog municipality, where she raised all seven of her children. Their children too now live in the area. She lives here in the small house in the clearing with her sister and niece, where they work daily on the squash farm for the landlord.

She and her community didn’t know the storm was coming. They weren’t prepared for it at all. When it intensified, people went to the only concrete building in their village – the schoolhouse – to seek shelter from the storm. Asuncion stood huddled with hundreds of people together in one room. They didn’t have any food or water on hand, and so they stayed there, hungry and thirsty, until the storm passed the next day. She’s never been so afraid, she said.

Preparedness for these types of emergencies is critical to how we at IsraAID look at humanitarian aid. In order to truly ensure that all people, regardless of origin or income, have access to basic rights like safe water, physical health, education, and protection from violence and discrimination, we must also look at the way that hazards such as typhoons disproportionately affect communities where that access is already limited.

We often don’t realize how important preparation is until it matters. For example, people who live in cities with sidewalks don’t recognize that they keep us safe from oncoming traffic, clearly marking out where the cars go and where the pedestrians go, until the system breaks down.

Here in the Philippines, we are seeing a number of examples that illustrate this point. Children here have been out of school for two full years due to the pandemic. In the meantime, teachers and principals print out homework packets and deliver them to the homes of students. When electricity lines were felled by the storm, teachers didn’t have a way to print them out. We visited schools where teachers struggled to find a solution in the immediate aftermath of the typhoon, and recently have been connecting printers to generators to ensure their students get their school packets.

Another example is sanitation. Without robust infrastructure that separates waste and stores it safely, sources of drinking water have been contaminated by bacteria, putting communities at high risk for E. Coli and cholera breakouts.

However, all of these risks have to be considered before a Super Typhoon hits. This is where we come in as humanitarian aid workers. When rebuilding after emergencies like this one, it’s critical that we don’t just return communities to where they were, but rather think ahead to what we can do to solve these problems. Amid climate change, extreme weather systems are occurring more regularly, their consequences more severe. It is our responsibility to work alongside communities to ensure that those most vulnerable to emergencies have the tools and capacities to prevent storms from becoming disasters.

In this way, we can help women like Asuncion be better prepared next time. They need to know that a storm is coming, where emergency stores of water and food are, and how to act before and after to ensure their safety. This is how we’re structuring our emergency response and rehabilitation work here in the Philippines: learning from the experience of the past to build a better, more resilient future.

About the Author
Molly Bernstein is IsraAID’s Innovation and Communications Developmen Manager, currently serving as the Head of Mission in the Philippines. Previously, Molly served as the organization’s Head of Mission on the Greek island of Lesbos. She lives in Tel Aviv.
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