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By Nick Finney
Nearly six months after the devastating flash floods hit Cagayan de Oro in Southern Philippines, the challenge to find a permanent shelter for those who lost their homes remains a struggle. When I arrived on May 28th, about 280 families were estimated to be camping out in five schools across the city, as their neighbourhoods – mainly on the riverbanks – had been flattened in floods and deemed ‘unsafe to build’ on by the local authorities.
The flash floods of December 16th 2011 hit Cagayan de Oro in the middle of the night, taking the city by surprise. It claimed over 1,400 lives, many of whom were washed away as they lay in their beds, and affected more than a million people. Amongst those who survived, many had lost their homes, and were made to set up camp in school compounds and other public areas where they could receive the food and water aid they needed.
Five months and counting, with the challenge to rehouse families unresolved, a meeting was held with some of the humanitarian agencies responding to the flash floods and a senior official from the city administration.
The mood is one of frustration.
Along with partners in the Department of Education, Save the Children has been orchestrating a campaign to move the flood-affected families into better accommodation away from the schools. Since their neighbourhoods have been deemed ‘unsafe to build’ on, it begs the question: “where can they go?”
This is a city and landowners are not ready to just give their land away – or at least to the extent that it is needed. This emergency response has hit a point where it is not about resources. It is about space. As soon as we can find some land, the resources exist to quickly construct transitional shelters for residents. Not a permanent home, but much better than a tent.
The urgency required in relocating these families cannot be understated. I spent the previous afternoon at some of these schools and it was an all-too-familiar sight. Tents were starting to deteriorate and will soon start to rot, especially with the rainy season just around the corner. These tents, along with latrines, washing and cooking facilities are often crammed into school playgrounds. When the children arrive for school, they climb over guy ropes, people’s legs and pools of mud just to get to their various classes.
The residents, many of whom are now unemployed, bored and dislocated are sprawled around their tents, watching the world go by and with nothing to do apart from awaiting news of more permanent housing or going out looking for work. In many such camps there have been crimes: robbery and rape. For reasons of hygiene and child protection, we need a solution now.
These solutions are not straightforward but Save the Children’s position is clear: We must empty the schools.
And it was heart-warming to know that our point was well received. A week after my arrival in Cagayan de Oro, we received news that two schools of families were transferred to relocation sites, leaving just three schools to go.
As I left Cagayan de Oro and reflected on the great work we were doing, there was one thing I saw that surprised me. On the flood plain of the river which had been flattened by the flood, a huge multi-storey building was being constructed. Someone had found land to build on. I asked what the building was going to be. “It’s going to be a big shopping mall”. A disaster can be a great opportunity for some, but for not for the people affected and not for the children whose playgrounds are still full of tents.
Nick Finney is the Humanitarian Director for Save the Children in Asia.
To date, Save the Children’s relief response has reached over 20,000 families affected in Tropical Cyclone Washi, providing support and comfort to children and their families recovering from the disaster.
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