Shelter key issue for Washi survivors

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MANILA, 17 January 2012 (IRIN) - One month after tropical storm Washi pummelled parts of the southern island of Mindanao, shelter remains the key challenge facing tens of thousands of survivors.

Tropical storm Washi hit two major cities, Cagayan de Oro and Iligan in northern Mindanao, and 800 neighbouring villages on 16-18 December, triggering large-scale flooding and landslides that affected more than one million people.

With more than 50,000 houses damaged or destroyed, some 26,000 survivors remain in 56 overcrowded evacuation centres, the country's National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) reported on 17 January.

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), another 200,000 are in makeshift shelters or staying with host families.

"Our top priority at the moment is to ensure that shelter solutions are provided to all the displaced, including families from informal settlements and those living in areas deemed the danger zone," Jacqui Badcock, UN Humanitarian Coordinator for the Philippines, told IRIN.

In the aftermath of the storm, the government declared strips of land within 20m of the Cagayan River, the country's longest, and its surrounding islets as "no-build zones". Many of the displaced lived in these areas.

The government and aid groups are now working to identify available land that could be used as temporary relocation sites while permanent sites are being constructed.

"We [the humanitarian community] are working closely with the government to ensure the relocations are voluntary, safe and dignified," Badcock added.

Relocation is being done on a staggered basis. An initial 350 of the most vulnerable families, who were living along the riverbanks, have been moved to tents at a temporary relocation site in Cagayan de Oro.

Permanent relocation sites for those who lost their homes and those who cannot return to their areas of origin (declared by the government as "no build" zones) are due to open in July 2012, according to OCHA; however, the exact number of people to be provided with shelter or shelter-repair assistance remains unconfirmed.

Availability of land and property rights are an additional challenge, shelter experts say.

"Although a few relocation sites have already been identified and are being prepared, acquiring land for temporary and permanent shelters is a huge challenge," Anna Pont, International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) shelter cluster coordinator in Mindanao, said.

"The land secured should optimally be close to people's livelihoods or has to provide them with new livelihood opportunities," Pont said.

Accessing remote areas

Meanwhile, local government and aid agencies are still struggling to reach those outside evacuation centres, particularly in remote and isolated areas.

One month on, communities outside Iligan and in parts of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) remain cut off and accessible only by air. Already affected by internal conflict, Washi has aggravated the vulnerability of these areas, aid workers confirm.

"The urgent needs are food, clothing and shelter," Ben Aspera, head of the sub-office for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Iligan, confirmed.

Helicopters provided by the Philippine Army fly in supplies twice daily; however, their capacity is largely limited by both quantity and weight.

"We are able to fly in food, clothing and sleeping supplies. We cannot bring in heavy shelter supplies at the moment," Aspera said.

And while local and national authorities continue to work to clear roads to better access those affected, incessant rains are making that difficult.

"We are continuously working on clearing the roads, but we are hampered by rains. We need to be careful because this area is prone to floods and landslides. Likewise, rains sometimes delay us from airlifting supplies," Benito Ramos, head of the NDRRMC, told IRIN.

"Our immediate concern is to sustain these communities until they can be given permanent shelter," Ramos stressed.

The government declared a state of national calamity in the most devastated areas on 20 December to hasten relief and rehabilitation efforts as well as facilitate international aid.

On 22 December, the UN and humanitarian partners called for US$28.6 million to support the government.

To date, $7.4 million (26 percent) has been provided for shelter, food, water, sanitation and hygiene and logistics. This includes a $3 million disbursement from the UN Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF).

An estimated $9 million is needed for shelter requirements alone, of which $2.7 million or 30 percent has been funded.