Solidarity and cooperation in the aftermath of Super-Typhoon Hayian

By Martin Lachmann

''This is the 16th disaster relief project I am part of, but this is the first time when I think no matter how much support we have brought to the victims of typhoon Hayian it is not enough yet'' said Vice president of KAISA during our journey to the airport of Manila, from where we headed to Iloilo. In this province, heavily hit by typhoon Hayian, we were to help distribute emergency relief goods during the following days and witness the truth of this statement. Recorded as the deadliest typhoon in the Philippines, Hayian hit the country on November 8, 2013 and caused more than 6,000 deaths.

I decamped from Hong Kong to the Philippines with another Amity staff member to distribute emergency relief goods with our local Philippine partner KAISA. These emergency provisions worth, HKD 2,057,000 were provided by the Hong Kong government as relief aid to 5,000 families. For each family the supplies included 25 kilograms of rice and various non-food items such as mosquito nets, candles, water-proof food containers, blankets, cutlery, slippers and sanitary items.

As a new staff member of Amity Hong Kong, I was participating in such relief operation the first time. I arrived in Manila with mixed feelings. On one hand, I was concerned about recent reports of looting and chaos. Would there be problems distributing the emergency supplies? On the other hand, I was deeply impressed by the willingness of organizations from all over the world to help, especially by Hong Kong citizens. All over the city sympathy was empathized and numerous charity events took place throughout Hong Kong, in order to help the victims of Typhoon Hayian. As a European Hong Kong resident who reads about tensions between the governments of Hong Kong and the Philippines in the mainstream media, I was delightfully surprised to see cross-border cooperation and solidarity among the people in the face of such tragedies. By the time when even the Hong Kong government granted support for the humanitarian crisis to the people of the Philippines, I was eager and proud being part of Amity's relief operation.*

In Manila we were first invited to KAISA's headquarters, our Philippines partner NGO that already cooperated with Amity in a 2009 disaster relief operation. They explained about their ongoing disaster relief work since the impact of the typhoon to the present. Besides being grateful for their trust, transparency and cordiality, I was pleased to hear about their general mission before our departure to Iloilo, where we planned to distribute the relief goods. KAISA is a Filipino-Chinese NGO that advocates friendship and mutual understanding between Chinese and Filipinos citizens as well good governance and charity actions. Especially I was amazed about the fact that volunteers managed such a well-organized and professional NGO and that there is a personnel turnover for the organisation's president at the age of 49, to have a flow of new ideas and structures.

KAISA's headquater in Manila

After our arrival in Iloilo we teamed up with the KAISA volunteers and visited the relief goods warehouse. Other local volunteering partner organizations, namely the Iloilo Citizen Action Group and the local chapter of the Philippine Red Cross already did an astonishing job by packing all the relief goods, ready for transportation and distribution to the coastal municipalities. Additionally we met with government officials, who expressed their gratitude to the government and the people of Hong Kong and supported our relief operation with trucks and security. ''People in Iloilo are poor and it will take probably years for them to reach a state of normality again.'' Dr. Banias the provincial administrator, who is coordinating the disaster emergency efforts in the province, gave me these words to take along after I asked him about his assessment of the state of rehabilitation. On the way to Ajuy, the first municipality of our operation, we could already witness the impact of the natural disaster. All the way we saw roadside houses that were heavily damaged; they had received makeshift repairs with tarpaulin. Power lines had only recently been rebuilt in many places.

Visiting the warehouse 

Team up with volunteering partner

Devastation in Iloilo

Meeting with officials

In Ajuy the team of nearly 30 volunteers split into two groups. While the first group delivered supplies to mountainous barangays, I joined the second group that went to four remote islands accessible only on small, motorized boats fitted with wooden outriggers. Entering the islands by wading ashore through shallow water showed us the logistical difficulties of delivering supplies to these remote barangays of Ajuy. After our arrival, on the way through the barangay to the village center, we were eyed skeptically by the people. However, after news spread that we came to distribute relief goods, more and more people flocked to the village center. Soon the place was crowded with people and a bunch of exited children who ogled me with prying eyes soon surrounded me.

Weary journey to remote islands

Scepticism, curiosity and enthusiasm

Our team hung up banners that provided information about the donor government, Hong Kong. The banners also noted the people and organizations that helped the operation with logistics, organization and manpower. While the team set up roles, volunteer villagers set up chairs, loudspeakers and helped carry relief goods to the village center stage. Afterwards the major of Ajuy, who accompanied our group this day, gave a speech of gratitude and informed the people about the process of goods distribution. Short speeches by Amity and KAISA staff followed. Also, a local villager reported on the typhoon’s strike and daily struggles after Hayian hit their island.

I was surprised and impressed about the management, and how orderly the distribution was. Prior to our visit, beneficiaries received red cards that certified their identity and needs. Those who benefited most from the relief supplies were families and the elderly. The local Red Cross volunteers were young criminology students of Ajuy University, and some of them grew up in the villages themselves. They helped with identifying, checking and verifying the village residents’ lists that were provided by the local authorities. They also passionately took part in the distribution of the goods, with other volunteers. All relief project participants were eager, altruistic, professional and fair.

Well-prepared distribution

In the next hours the beneficiaries lined up orderly before the stage where red identity cards were collected before supplies were distributed. The Mayor instructed the village chiefs to provide volunteer assistance for woman and the elderly in order to help them carry relief supplies home. We could see the Philippine people’s happiness and gratitude increase as we handed over relief goods. This increased the whole team’s enthusiasm. Although the relief projects’ physical challenges wore on us, we continued to work without much rest. And, we were all rewarded by the people’s memorable smiles and thankful expressions. As time went on, the villagers also shared fresh coconut juice and hand-made snacks. In the end, they all seemed quite happy with the fair distribution of the supplies and I recognized a substantial change in the atmosphere when we left. Feelings of friendship and happiness replaced initial skepticism and people thanked us with handshakes, cheers, and waved goodbye.

Happines and gratitude

The full engagement of every single participant for the goods distribution gave me time to look around the village, meet the people, witness the devastation first-hand, and take pictures. The typhoon exacerbated the already impoverished situation of the people. I learned that many villagers cannot start rebuilding their former lives and are still living in tents and emergency shelters. Most people are fisherman and their fishing boats were destroyed by the disaster. They are in a hopeless struggle of restoring their livelihood. The village chief, a middle-aged woman who was elected a short time before Hayian hit the island, told me, ''It was very hard for me to maintain order here.'' Her eyes reflected the stress she experienced in prior weeks.

I also learned that, although people had been warned of the typhoon, they did not expect the devastating impact that it brought. The municipalities’ communication and infrastructure supported by Amity is very limited. On the islands, it took up to five days before supplies were delivered. During that time villagers had to deplete their inventories of coconuts and crabs in order to survive. It was thus quite gratifying to know that the Hong Kong Yacht Club has already donated some money to help villagers to rebuild some outrigger fishing boats that some families could soon resume their regular livelihood.

Over the next days, Amity conducted similar relief operations for mountainous and coastal barangays. A total of 41 barangays in the municipalities of Ayuj, Batad and San Dioniso were supplied. Wherever we went people showed their gratitude in one way or another. Sometimes small difficulties occurred, such as local authorities not providing sufficient information that resulted in beneficiaries not being able to arrange appropriate transportation. But our local partner KAISA always found a satisfactory solution through its reliability, experience and contacts.

In the end, it was an overwhelming experience for me. I learned a lot about disaster relief work. If I get a chance to participate in such a project in the future – perish the thought of future natural disasters- I hope I can make more contributions in terms of organization and preparation, based on my experience in the Philippines. Personally, I was affected very much by the hospitality, friendliness, and the happiness of the people. When I told them I had not expected to see such sereneness after such devastation, they told me, ''There is nothing else we can do, we only can look forward'' This bold attitude enthralled me and I am happy that Amity contributed to this spark of hope for a better future and to strengthen the friendship and harmony among Asian peoples.

Martin Lachmann

For more information on Amity's relief operation in the Philippines view our photo series.

*Current tensions between the Hong Kong and the Philippine governments center around the 2010 'Manila hostage crisis' in which Hong Kong tourists were killed after their tour bus was hijacked. Filipinos are the largest group of migrant workers in Hong Kong and the direct neighbor of Hong Kong and China in the South China Sea. Furthermore, unsettled territorial disputes arise from time to time between the Philippines, China and most neighboring countries of the South East China Sea. But in spite of this, through Amity and other NGOs, Hong Kong contributed to the relief efforts, as did people from the Mainland, China. I hope for peaceful development of this Asian region. In the future I hope Amity will expand its function, offering support and bridging friendship and mutual understanding among the people of Asia.