Walking through the streets of the Cateel, on the eastern coast of Mindanao, the devastation left by Typhoon Bopha (known locally as Pablo) is evident everywhere. Most houses are covered by tarpaulins, debris fills the spaces where family homes once stood and the fragile structures of damaged houses punctuate the streets. Bopha was the most deadly storm globally in 2012, killing more than 1000 people and affecting 6.2 million.
Passing by Evangeline Lim’s small grocery shop, you first notice her friendly, welcoming smile, the typical cans of coca cola, packs of instant coffee and local sweets and the sign advertising charging services for mobile phones that is on shop fronts and houses throughout the town.
In this area, which has been without electricity since Bopha struck in December 2012, mobile phones are now the only means many people have of receiving information. Most people do not have access to a television, radio or newspapers; traditional means of communication suffered extensive damage.
“People use their mobile phone to access weather updates from PAGASA (the Philippines National weather bureau),” Evangeline explains, as well as to stay in touch with friends and family. Shop owners and families, who can afford to buy generators to power their homes and businesses, offer charging services as an additional source of income. People pay by the hour; the typical cost is 20-30 Pesos (70 cents – US$1).
The typhoon made landfall here on the coast, damaging or destroying all the buildings in Canteel and neighbouring towns and causing extensive damage to infrastructure and agriculture. Coconut and banana plantations were decimated, leaving tens of thousands of people without an income and in need of food assistance. For people here, who had never experienced a storm like this before and had no idea of what was coming, the storm had a serious psychological impact.
“After Bopha there have been rumours about more typhoons and floods, so it is very important to have accurate information on the weather,” explains Evangeline. “People really panic if they think it is going to happen again and they run away.”
Evangeline is one of the few people in the community who owns a computer, which she managed to salvage from the storm. Along with the weather updates she receives from PAGASA on her mobile phone, she checks the weather online using an internet dongle and shares the information with her neighbours and others. That way, they are kept informed and are better able to make decisions about what measures to take to protect themselves and their families.
"80% of households own a mobile phone ... 1bn text messages are sent per day"
Time and again in emergencies, communities have demonstrated both their need for reliable information to make informed decisions about events that affect themselves and their families, as well as their need to be heard. In disaster-prone Philippines, home to over 100 million people, access to accurate and timely weather reports and early warning information can be life-saving.
OCHA in the Philippines is working with humanitarian partners, including CDAC Network members the International Organization for Migration (IOM), to improve access to vital information including weather updates, emergency shelter, livelihood support, health and education services, as well as to ensure that the voices of affected communities are heard and considered in the response. Activities include weekly radio programmes, an informative cartoon series, text message campaigns and film screenings in camps.
These activities are particularly appropriate in the Philippines, which has been described as the text messaging capital of the world. Some 80 per cent of households own a mobile phone and an estimated one billion text messages are sent per day. Mobile phones are therefore one of the most pervasive and accessible means of sharing and receiving information.
The Government and other emergency responders have also used social media to share early warning updates and information on the emergency response. However, in the aftermath of Typhoon Bopha, in many rural areas, telephone networks are still down which, along with damage to roads and infrastructure, as well recurrent flooding, is making it very hard to reach remote communities with information and other assistance.
In Cateel and neighbouring communities, the rebuilding process is underway, but it will take a long time before all the tarpaulins disappear and homes are rebuilt. It will take even longer for the fear of what the weather might bring to subside, especially as heavy monsoon rains began this month. It is important that people in these communities are provided not only with aid to help them rebuild their homes and livelihoods, but also with access to information to enable them to make informed decisions about the safety and welfare of their families.
Image: January 2013, Mindanao: Evangeline in her small corner shop in Cateel. Along with basic groceries she also sells mobile phone charging services.
Reporting by Eva Modvig/ OCHA