MANILA, Philippines – Safety and livable space. These, according to the President’s spokesman, were enough standards observed by the government in building bunkhouses for survivors of Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan).
Following criticisms that the government’s standards were far below international standards, Palace spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said on Wednesday, January 8, that the Philippines doesn’t have to follow world standards.
His statement came after Public Works and Highways Secretary Rogelio Singson himself admitted, he only got to read the Sphere Handbook, a widely recognized benchmark for humanitarian response, on Tuesday – or almost 10 weeks since the storm.
Originally, the government planned bunkhouses of 8.64 square meters per family. International concerns has since forced the government to double it to 17.28 square meters.
“We are following our standards. We don’t necessarily have to follow the international standards,” he said.
Lacierda said government standards were “safety and that [victims] will not be placed in a cramped space.”
Lacierda also argued the bunkhouses are temporary anyway and are “better than tents, better than living under tarpaulins.”
Singson earlier said those affected by the storms are expected to live in the bunkhouses for at least two years, or until when permanent housing is done. He acknowledged, however, the shelters wouldn’t be completed within that period, given “the scale of the devastation there.”
Yolanda, known as the world’s strongest typhoon, made landfall in Eastern Visayas on November 8, killing 6,166 people and leaving 1,785 others missing, according to the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council.
This made the storm, which also left 4.4 million people homeless, one of the deadliest natural disasters in Philippine history.
DPWH is aiming to build 222 bunkhouses. It has so far built 126, said Singson.
But Lacierda gave assurances that because the bunkhouses have been reduced to accommodate 12 families instead of 24, the government will “proportionately have to increase the number of bunkhouses for that,” which he said the administration has the budget for.
Urban planner and architect Jun Palafox, who was consulted about the bunkhouses, said the reconfiguration of the bunkhouses now makes them acceptable. Earlier, he commented they were “undersized and substandard,” based on his international experience and standards.
Sphere supports Palafox’s opinion.
The Sphere Handbook allows shelters to provide less than 3.5 square meters per person – but only in the short term.
“In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, particularly in extreme climatic conditions where shelter materials are not readily available, a covered area of less than 3.5 square meters per person may be appropriate to save life and to provide adequate short-term shelter,” Sphere says.
The international benchmark, however, says the space should reach 3.5 square meters per person “as soon as possible to minimize adverse impact on the health and well-being of the people accommodated.”
“If 3.5 square meters per person cannot be achieved, or is in excess of the typical space used by the affected or neighboring population, the impact on dignity, health, and privacy of a reduced covered area should be considered. Any decision to provide less than 3.5 square meters per person should be highlighted, along with actions to mitigate adverse effects on the affected population,” the handbook says.
Based on these standards, the original 8.64-square-meter unit the government planned per family is clearly substandard, since a 10.5-square-meter unit is the requirement for a family of 3.
The new expanded space of 17.28 square meters per family, however, can just about accommodate a family of 5, according to Sphere standards.
In Yolanda-hit Eastern Visayas, where the average household size is 4.7, a bunkhouse unit for an average family should therefore measure at least 16.45 square meters.
Sphere adds: “Temporary or transitional shelter solutions may be required to provide adequate shelter for an extended duration, through different seasonal climates and potentially for several years. Response plans agreed with local authorities or others should ensure that temporary or transitional shelters are not allowed to become default permanent housing.”
Lacierda vowed the permanent housing would be “typhoon-resistant shelters.”
“I can guarantee you it won’t [be the same as the bunkhouses],” he said.
Support for Singson
Despite Singson’s admission of being unaware of international standards for shelters – which comes amid reports the bunkhouses are also overpriced – the Cabinet member still found support from various officials.
In a statement, Palafox expressed appreciation for Singson’s initiative “to improve the designs and specifications based on international standards” and said he hoped Singson would not resign.
Senate President Franklin Drilon also called Singson “the most honest, efficient, and decisive Public Works secretary” he has seen recently while Presidential Communications Operations Office Sonny Coloma earlier gave assurances the President’s confidence in Singson remains unwavered.
At least one group, however, wants Singson to take a leave of absence.
Left-leaning partylist group Anakpawis on Wednesday urged Singson to take a break while an investigation into the rumored overpricing of bunkhouses is ongoing.
“If he is so sure that there’s really no monkey business building these bunkhouses, we dare him to vacate his post,” the group said in a statement.
Singon earlier vowed to resign if the overpricing reports are proven true. – with reports from Paterno Esmaquel/Rappler.com