I want to show you the pictures. Pictures of crumpled steel, fallen trees and powerlines, tarps and tents, people queueing for rations, smashed cars. The words ‘help us, we need food’ spray painted on walls and roads. But pictures can’t describe what it’s really like. My observations of Tacloban are all from a bus window on the way through to San Miguel, so I can’t describe what it’s really like either. I want to tell you what I saw.
It’s been six months since Typhoon Yolanda hit Leyte and neighbouring islands.
Tarps, bearing names like Rotary and Unicef, replace missing roofs, or are used for makeshift shelters.
White tents, with the names of international aid agencies in big letters on their sides, line the roadside, housing those whose homes have been destroyed completely.
Yet it’s not enough. All the aid could never be enough. People all over the world are contributing to the relief effort, but people here still can’t afford to rebuild, and will be living under canvas until the canvas falls apart. Some have no shelter at all.
A school building, missing its roof, has the word HELP painted on the front wall in large letters.
A factory has been reduced to twisted steel girders.
Lumber yards have sprung up, selling lengths of fallen coconut trees for timber-framed huts.
Beach sand is being used to make bricks for rebuilding.
Chainsaws, sharpening, battery charging services and loans are booming businesses.
Some houses and businesses have been re-connected to the power supply, but others are lit by candles.
A new cemetery, for those who didn’t survive, is full of visitors.
The airport is under a newly-repaired iron roof, with no walls, and no automated security screening. The check-in counters are under tarps, staffed by people sitting at old school desks with laptops. Announcements about departing flights are made with a megaphone.
Most school buildings are beyond repair. In the schoolyards are marquees and temporary buildings (bearing the name Taiwan Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation), where classes are going on. In these circumstances, wouldn’t children gain more from learning to build huts, weave thatch roofs, cook, and plant food gardens? Surely a lot more useful and relevant than maths and English.
The World Food Program has a new, multi-storey office building, while everyone around lives and works under tarps, and many don’t even have that. People living nearby don’t have enough food, yet the WFP prioritises this building. Their funders quite probably profit directly from this construction.
New suburban subdivisions have been built, in a city where most people have always lived in tiny bamboo huts, and aren’t getting any help to rebuild their traditional shelters. The subdivisions are probably on land cleared of such huts, rendering more people homeless.
A new compound belonging to a pharmaceutical company has appeared. The signs on the front wall declare that this is private property, and claim that this business is assisting the victims, but it looks more like stealing their land and expanding business at their expense.
Banks and an upmarket car dealership have new buildings. The cars are probably being sold to aid agencies. Most local people wouldn’t have the money or need for a car.
The impacts of disaster capitalism are visible throughout the city. Corporate invasion and theft from people who are not able to defend themselves.
The response is causing more of a disaster than the event it is responding to.
It’s called a natural disaster, but to the natural world there’s no disaster. It’s only a disaster to industrial infrastructure, and the people and economies that have come to depend on this infrastructure. To communities living in shelters made of natural materials, growing food in polycultures, the impact would be minimal. Huts can be rebuilt easily, from fallen coconut trees, with roofs made of palm thatch. Root crops remain in the ground, and regrow themselves, after a storm, so this method of food production is much less vulnerable than rice fields. Forested land recovers more quickly than cleared land.
Building resilient communities, independent of centralised infrastructure–electricity grid, global food distribution, jobs with foreign companies–would mean that storms would have a lot less impact. However, as foreign corporations have no qualms about killing people to exploit and steal, such communities would struggle to maintain their autonomy.
Efforts towards community sufficiency, with polycultural gardens based on root crops—cassava, sweet potato, yam, taro—and traditional building methods, independent of the electricity grid, are a small step to be prepared for the inevitable further storms. Another step would be to take down the centralised infrastructure.
Having strong relationships within the neighbourhood is essential, but when a disaster impacts a whole region, bonds with people from outside, who can come help, or accommodate refugees, is also vital.