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Preparing for disasters in paradise

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Isolation and natural disasters can make island life a challenge, as Australian volunteer Jock Rutherford finds out.

The Visayas islands in the Philippines are renowned for their beauty: turquoise, fish-filled waters; white, palm-fringed beaches and lush, tropical forests. But life in this perceived paradise isn't easy for everyone.

Leyte and Samar islands, known as the Eastern Visayas, form one of the most economically challenged regions in the Philippines. It is also one of the wettest regions, prone to torrential rain, flash floods and typhoons. The municipalities of San Isidro (Leyte province) and San Sebastian (Samar province) are extremely remote, with limited health services and a strong reliance on subsistence agriculture.

"Access to market, ability to turn livelihood projects into opportunities, access to infrastructure and information are all incredibly limited," says Jock Rutherford, who spent a year in the Philippines through the AusAID-funded Australian Volunteers for International Development program.

Jock supported staff at the Leyte and West Samar chapters of Philippine Red Cross to implement a community health and disaster resilience project in San Isidro and San Sebastian.

As Jock explains, community empowerment was a critical factor in this project.

"Philippine Red Cross cannot get to every single barangay (local government area) so we need to develop the skills of the community to be able to respond, repair and recover from disaster," he says.

Jock helped Red Cross chapter staff to strengthen their skills in project management and - most importantly - gave them the confidence to facilitate discussion and consultation with community stakeholders, from farmers and fishermen to schools and local government.

"The chapter staff had the skills: it was about putting them into the context of the project and then developing the confidence to deliver the project's key messages to a variety of stakeholders," Jock says.

Staff used workshops, focus groups, surveys and other participatory activities to gather critical data to inform the community and develop appropriate health and disaster preparedness activities.

They also trained 240 community volunteers to conduct vulnerability and capacity assessments. These assessments produce a comprehensive picture of how disasters affect a region, how they impact on various segments of the community, and what might be done to increase community resilience. The information gathered is then used to develop disaster action plans. Jock says this work was a significant achievement for the team - and the communities.

"Staff presented the vulnerability and capacity assessments to the barangay officials, volunteers and community groups, taking them through the results and gaining feedback on the data collected. This demonstrated that they had caught the attention of their respective communities and were developing trust," he says.

"I was incredibly happy for the team, knowing they had achieved what was needed was important for them and they deserved the results."

For Jock, the relationships he built with his colleagues and community members were a memorable part of his assignment.

"When work was finished in the communities you could listen to the volunteers and barangay officials share their stories and why they love the life they lead," Jock says.

"Whether it is sharing a coconut, walking along the beaches or exploring the rice fields, it was such a privilege to be a part of these communities trying to make some positive change."


Photo courtesy Jock Rutherford.