The UN refugee agency is planning to fly urgently needed relief supplies to the Philippines’ flood-devastated island of Mindanao, where a weekend storm killed more than 1,000 people and left thousands more homeless.
For years, the UN refugee agency has been assisting refugees, asylum seekers, displaced and stateless people in Mindanao, where Moro Islamic rebels have been fighting for self-determination for about four decades. It normally does not assist victims of natural disaster.
However, UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic said that in recent years the agency has been responding to people affected by natural disasters, as well as conflict in some countries where it already has a presence. He said the agency is well placed to do this because of its expertise in handling emergency situations.
“So, it was natural that we would offer our assistance and help those who have suffered this additional setback," said Mahecic. "So we are now in the process of rushing an airlift, which will basically carry a lot of shelter material, including plastic tarpaulins and household items - the items that most of the people have lost in the floods that devastated Mindanao Island. And, also we will provide enough material to shelter at least 10,000 people.”
Tropical storm Washi, as it is called, hit Mindanao on Saturday, causing flash floods that washed away riverside slum communities in two main cities. Government relief officials put the number of dead on Wednesday at more than 1,000 and said almost 340,000 people are affected. Some communities have lost everything.
The UNHCR reports more than 7,000 houses were destroyed or severely damaged, and more than 42,000 people are crammed into overflowing evacuation centers.
Mahecic said most of the UNHCR’s work on Mindanao is aimed at helping communities affected by conflict to find shelter and then, if possible, return to their homes. In addition, he said the agency funds relatively low-cost projects to make sure that once the people go home, they stay home.
“So, in some ways there will be a similar process now that the storm is over. People will want to go home as soon as possible and clearly we also want to assist if necessary in that process because we do have some in that,” said Mahecic.
The UNHCR operation is part of a larger United Nations response to the crisis in Mindanao. The World Food Program will provide food assistance and other support to the 235,000 worst-affected people.
The World Health Organization, meanwhile, is sending mosquito nets to evacuation centers to protect people against malaria. It also is setting up a disease surveillance system. The UN Children’s Fund is supporting water and sanitation needs.