Reuben Levermore, New Zealand's Ambassador to the Philippines, talks about Typhoon Pablo, which struck the region in December 2012.
There are many obvious differences between New Zealand and the Philippines, but one unfortunate fact we have in common is our vulnerability to natural disasters.
On average, around 20 typhoons visit the Philippines each year, and typically these strike the eastern side of the country, in the Visayas region. But in two successive Decembers now, severe storms have hit Mindanao in the country's south. The latest - Typhoon Pablo (or Bopha as it's known internationally) - made landfall on 4 December, taking over 1000 lives (with 800 people still missing).
Recently I joined a mission to assess the relief effort in the two provinces hardest hit by Pablo: Compostela Valley and Davao Oriental. The mission revealed a complex and challenging situation confronting the people of these regions, as well as the agencies that are trying to help them.
The typhoon affected an estimated 5.5 million people in 32 different provinces, including in very remote locations, many of which are now even harder to reach. Tens of thousands of homes were destroyed, and large banana and coconut plantations - which provide incomes to thousands of families in this fruitbowl of the Philippines - were flattened. The extensive damage was apparent as we flew by Philippine Air Force helicopter over Davao Oriental province and an estimated 8 million coconut palms that resembled tooth picks scattered over scoured hills, previously covered in lush forest.
In the evacuation centres, people affected by the typhoon identified the obvious immediate priorities: food, temporary shelter and jobs. The lead figure for the Philippine Government response, the ever energetic Secretary of Social Welfare and Development "Dinky" Soliman, emphasised the importance of getting peoples' lives back to normal as soon as possible. And there were signs of this in some evacuation camps, as young children attended makeshift classrooms under tents.
In response to Pablo, a total of 18 humanitarian agencies are working with the Philippine national government, and provincial governments, to provide relief. In order to ensure the most effective recovery, it is important that the agencies effectively coordinate with each other. They are doing this by forming "clusters" of different agencies, each cluster charged with a specific aspect of relief, such as temporary shelter, nutrition, and sanitation. Thanks to commitment from the agencies, and strong leadership from Secretary Soliman and others, the signs were that this is happening very effectively.
New Zealand's assistance to the typhoon relief has been in the form of contributions to relief and recovery activities carried out by UNICEF for the purposes of providing water, health and sanitation at camps, and to the International Red Cross for essential food and non-food items. The New Zealand government has also supported proposals submitted by several NZ-based NGOs which include aid for temporary shelter.
The recovery is clearly going to take a long time. In some places we visited, the devastation was severe indeed. The village of Andap that was buried by a massive rockslide now resembles the dry bed of a long and wide river, while communities on the beautiful coastline of Davao Oriental province have been flattened by wind gusts of over 200kph that in many cases even destroyed the concrete buildings to which villagers evacuated.
Although the sheer force of nature is beyond the control of the authorities, these disasters provide an important opportunity to "build back better". Important decisions will need to be taken about where to rebuild communities so that they are less exposed in future. Many people believe that changing climatic patterns will make the Mindanao region more exposed to typhoons than it has been in the past.
New Zealand is committed to supporting this longer term perspective. "Disaster Risk Reduction" is a key focus for New Zealand as it supports development and poverty reduction in the Philippines through its aid programme. To this end, we have partnered with the UN Development Programme and the Australian government in order to produce disaster risk planning "maps" that help to identify areas that are vulnerable to disaster so that provincial governments can be better prepared.