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Typhoon ripple effect deals poor double whammy

For thousands of Filipinos with nowhere to rebuild, the hardship of the storm has only just begun.

While the government, with the help of countless NGOs, charity organizations and even the United Nations, has been trying its best to respond to the needs of the poor, these remain largely unmet. As a result, the U.N. on Monday appealed to the international community for more help, as much as $100 million.

And now, according to Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro's Monday announcement, the government is prohibiting slum dwellers from rebuilding their shanties on waterways. As a result, Metro Manila’s poor are faced with the real problem of where to rebuild their lives. Prior to Ketsana, the government recorded 70,000 families that had illegally built their homes on these canals, creeks and bridges. Many had their homes destroyed by the typhoon, while many remain.

But relocation seems imminent at this point, with everybody — from government officials to geographers — now proclaiming that removing those shanties as well as the garbage that clogs Metro Manila’s drainage system should be a priority. 

Teodoro, who also chairs the National Disaster Coordinating Council, said in an interview that the structures that constrict the waters are the reasons why floodwaters remain in many parts of the capital more than a week after the disaster.

Jose Lito Atienza, the environment secretary, agrees and said, in a separate interview, that “the first thing that should be done now is to remove the garbage and those structures.” He threatened to sue any mayor in Metro Manila who will defy such a move, saying that these local executives have allowed the garbage to accumulate in the first place. Kilusang Mayo Uno (May First Movement), the country's largest labor group, cautioned the government on Tuesday against arbitrarily demolishing these shantytowns without viable relocation plans for those affected.

"We agree that flood-prone areas should be vacated and that these are not fit for human residence in the first place. Even poor people say so. We believe, however, that the best way to leave these spaces vacant is to create new homes for our urban poor," said Elmer Labor, chairman of the Kilusang Mayo Uno, in a Tuesday statement.

Pamalakaya, a group of fisherfolk, criticized the government for even thinking about removing the houses of poor residents around the Laguna Lake, where floodwater had accumulated and spilled over into several communities. The forced eviction, said Salvador France, vice chairman of Pamalakaya, would displace “100,000 lakeshore residents mostly small fishermen and poor people who have been living in Laguna Lake surroundings for generations."

According to the nonprofit economic think tank Ibon Foundation, Ketsana “could cause lasting poverty and severe difficulties” to the majority of the families it affected.

“They will face greatly increased expenses for housing, housing repair, medical care, education and personal effects. Among the critical spending they may be forced to cut back on to accommodate these is on food with corresponding adverse nutritional and health implications,” the foundation said.

It added that “among the most affected areas are urban poor communities which have high concentrations of informal sector work and, hence, of families in insecure and particularly vulnerable livelihoods.”

To residents like Fabre, all this sounds like they have been dealt a double whammy. “If they are going to remove us here, where would we go?” he asked. Many of those who suffered like him are probably asking the same question.