Death and damage tolls rise steadily in storm-crippled Philippines

Rescuers are now beginning to reach remote islands of the central Philippines after the rampaging Supertyphoon Haiyan made landfall a week ago, flattening densely populated cities in its path and continuing to pose one of the greatest logistical challenges to international aid relief.

More than 11 million people are estimated to be affected, and the death toll of 2,000 to 2,500 could likely rise as relief efforts establish communication with isolated villages.

"Logistics is a huge issue because you have very small airstrips with very little capacity," said Dennis Bruhn, a disaster risk assessment officer deployed to the country by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

"It's not that resources are not here; the capacity is just so limited," he added.

Bruhn was also tasked to assist efforts in the region after Typhoon Bopha struck the southern island of Mindanao last December. Landslides and flash floods due to torrential rain were the cause of 1,400 deaths. During Bopha, it was easier to mobilize equipment because the area affected wasn't as remote, Bruhn said.

Although extreme weather events have increased in frequency and intensity in the last decade, a government considered one of the most proactive in climate adaptation in the region did not expect Haiyan's tsunami-like storm surge.

A recent report from Germanwatch, an organization advising international climate policy, ranked the Philippines second of all countries most affected by climate change last year. The country experienced 20 typhoons this year alone, and the losses from Haiyan could catapult its ranking because of increasing vulnerability to climate-related impacts.

The researchers created an index examining the vulnerability of countries to climate change using data from the insurer Munich Re and indicators including economic loss and the number of fatalities.


Where the 'new normal' hurts

"Our idea of normal is changing," said Simon Donner, a climate scientist at the University of British Columbia.

"If the same typhoon passed over the ocean in 1880, the storm surge wouldn't have been as big," Donner explained.

Global warming and the subsequent thermal expansion of water are causing the sea surrounding the Philippines to rise at one of the fastest rates in the world, according to the latest assessment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

It's been an "exceptionally bad year" for the country, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said in an interview with CNN in which he thanked the international community for the outpouring of aid that is finally gaining momentum on the ground seven days after the typhoon struck.

Earlier this week, Valerie Amos, chief of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, arrived in the Philippine capital of Manila and appealed for more than $300 million to cover the immediate needs of typhoon-devastated communities.

The amounts vary, and more is needed as the United States leads with committed aid at $20 million, Britain at $16 million, Japan at $10 million and Australia at $9.3 million. Neighboring country Indonesia has donated $2 million, while China has agreed to give $200,000.

In a telephone briefing with reporters yesterday, senior administration officials from the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Agency for International Development projected an increased level of American assistance later this week.

U.S. carrier group expected

To add to the U.S. military personnel helping distribute aid and assist in recovery, an aircraft carrier with 5,000 sailors and four other ships are expected to arrive in two or three days.

The significant commitment is rooted in a close relationship between the two countries. A statue of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, flanked by other golden statues of World War II soldiers, stands at a beach in Tacloban to commemorate the place where the U.S. military landed in 1944. The military maintains geopolitical ties with the Philippines through more recent agreements on military bases and ongoing joint training.

The military personnel on the ground in Tacloban and neighboring islands expect to have a handle on the logistical challenges incurred by the lack of infrastructure, geography and downed communication lines into next week, according to the Defense Department.

"It was like trying to squeeze an orange into a straw," another senior official said. "We now have bigger straws to get logistical aid into Tacloban city."

Many islands have yet to be reached by aid relief being funneled through Manila and Cebu and into Tacloban.

It is also still too early to estimate the total damage from the typhoon in a region that largely relies on fisheries, agriculture and tourism.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that more than a million farmers and numerous fishing communities were affected by the typhoon's trail of destruction. The typhoon also hit at the start of the main rice-planting season and destroyed fishing boats.

"The devastation caused in the country, including in the agricultural, fisheries and forestry sectors, puts the lives and livelihoods of many more at risk and can have a wider effect on the food supply chain and food security," FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva said in a statement.

Projected losses are severe

But losses from the region may not affect the entire economy, said Victor Andres Manhit, the Philippine managing director of the development and business consultancy Bower Group Asia and a former chief of staff to various congressional committees.

Analysts peg the cost of projected losses from Haiyan at $15 billion, of which $2 billion is insured, making up 5 percent of the entire economic output, according to Bloomberg Industries.

Overall growth may offset some losses from the mounting devastation estimates. The Philippine economy grew 7.6 percent in the first half of the year, making it the fastest-growing economy in the region.

Foreign investments have also showered the country with funds in recent years, but development in communities far from the pulsing capital and financial hub of Manila have seen very little of the transformation, largely due to corruption at every level of government.

"We have enough policies, but it's the execution of the policies that's lagging," said Manhit. Considering the current rescue efforts still underway, it is difficult to think of the long term. "It's day to day right now," Manhit added.

According to the Global Climate Risk Index from Germanwatch, the Philippines placed seventh among the top 10 countries most affected by climate change from 1993 to 2012.

"We have evidence and also just common sense that there is a responsibility for industrialized countries to act," said Sõnke Kreft, a lead author of the report and an international climate policy adviser at Germanwatch.

As international delegates meet in Warsaw, Poland, for talks that will lay the groundwork for a possible global agreement on climate change in two years, hundreds of survivors from the typhoon disembark from military cargo planes that have evacuated them from the hardest-hit areas to the cities of Cebu and Manila.

Neil Sanchez, Cebu's provincial Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council officer, told the online news outlet Rappler that his city is preparing for an influx of evacuees.

"We have our own problems here, but we can't ignore the pleas of our neighbors," Sanchez said.

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