Guns, poverty hampering aid

By Alex Spillius

Weak government and feeble infrastructure have exacerbated the typhoon's impact in already poor area.

Aid is only slowly reaching Tacloban, which felt the full force of Typhoon Haiyan. Agencies are reluctant to send in convoys without military protection. Photo / AP
Aid is only slowly reaching Tacloban, which felt the full force of Typhoon Haiyan. Agencies are reluctant to send in convoys without military protection. Photo / AP

A combination of unlucky geography, poverty, poor government and widespread gun use have exacerbated the effects of Typhoon Haiyan.

There are other countries in the world prone to natural disasters, but what distinguishes the Philippines, and has made the delivery of aid even more problematic after Typhoon Haiyan, is the prevalence of guns.

The archipelago of 7000 islands has the geographical misfortune to be affected by 20 or so tropical cyclones a year.

The Philippines is also bedevilled by harsh poverty and a weak central Government - despite the best efforts of President Benigno Aquino.

But there are few disaster zones in the world where nightfall is punctuated by the sound of gunfire and aid agency convoys need to wait for the army to restore a semblance of order before leaving their warehouses. There are 3.9 million guns - legal and illegal - held by civilians, or about 4.7 per 100 people, which isn't that high in global terms. But people are prepared to use them.

The murder rate is one of the highest in Asia and three times that of the United States, at 8.9 homicides per 100,000.

Illegal guns are not just carried by criminal gangs and insurgents. They also belong to civilians and politicians who keep private armies. This year the President boosted his credibility by winning top prize in a shooting competition, even as television reported a shootout between police and thieves on a motorway. Guns are so common that shops, restaurants and malls in cities commonly display signs asking customers not to bring their weapons inside. Private security guards carry handguns or shotguns, or both.

Analysts tend to blame the colonial history of the Philippines for becoming a gun-happy independent nation. It is said that three centuries of Spanish machismo were followed by 50 years of American preaching on the right to bear arms, making for a volatile mixture.

The reports of armed looting that emerged two or three days after Haiyan struck surprised no one. The army and police have sent reinforcements to control Tacloban, leading Manuel Roxas, the Secretary of the Interior, to declare that looting had been stopped. But Jericho Petilla, the Energy Secretary, said of Ormoc, another city in Leyte province: "On Saturday, Ormoc city was still under control. Now there is no control."

Ferry passengers were reportedly being held up by armed men on arrival at the port, he admitted. On Monday, the head of the United Nations' disaster assessment team in Tacloban said he would not send an aid convoy without a military escort.

Infrastructure - potentially a great pacifier and route to development - is notoriously feeble and has been cited as one of the primary obstacles to the country's development. Only 20 per cent of the country's roads are paved, while ferries which connect the islands are unreliable and prone to over-crowding and capsizing.

The central swathe of islands struck by Haiyan is among the poorest parts of a country where 40 per cent of the population lives on less than US$2 ($2.42) a day. Despite marked economic growth in the past few years and numerous economic reforms by Aquino, the Philippines ranks only 163rd in the global GDP per capita league table.

In the long term, thanks to abundant natural resources, an established if flawed democracy, and the remarkably sanguine spirit of its people, the Philippines should prevail. But thanks to the scale of this fresh disaster, growth is sadly now expected to contract, and the cycle of disaster and poverty to continue.

Aid slow but on the way

Aid agencies insist that delays in getting help to survivors of the typhoon are inevitable.

"Access to that part of the Philippines is normally only by air or fairly slow ferries anyway, and at the moment most of the airfields have been affected by the storm surge which has left a layer of muck," said Paul Valentin, the international director of Christian Aid. "Also, just to get from Manila to Tacloban would take 24 hours, and British and American naval ships are not stationed in the Philippines."

Most roads in the area are flooded or blocked by debris, and many bridges are down.

The Philippines Army, the only functioning arm of government in the disaster zone, has been coordinating clearing operations, but it can take days to cover 15km or 25km of road, said David Thomson, head of policy at World Vision. A team of staff from the charity has just arrived in Tacloban. "Just driving from Tacloban airport into the city centre took them six hours. In the end our team walked for seven hours to get there."

- Daily Telegraph UK

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