Two months after December’s Typhoon Odette (known internationally as “Rai”), which affected the lives of more than 10 million Filipinos and damaged or destroyed 1.9 million homes, 133,000 people are still displaced and children are still unable to go to school.

The COVID-19 situation initially made the Philippines off-limits to foreign visitors. So Israeli non-governmental humanitarian aid organization IsraAID assembled a team of three local volunteers, including former IsraAID staff members, to bring urgent aid to communities in need. As of last week, Israeli team members were able to enter the country, bringing an additional five experts to assist in the continuing relief work.

“We have already seen countless examples of both extreme loss and incredible resilience,” said Molly Bernstein, IsraAID’s Head of Mission in the Philippines.

“People here are super strong; they’ve been through so much. Even in IsraAID’s relatively short history in the Philippines—six years in the aftermath of Typhoon Yolanda in 2013—they’ve had intense storms and immense losses,” she said. “They pick themselves up and work together to overcome the challenges.”

It may sound counterintuitive that a major storm would cause a shortage of drinking water, but indeed that’s one of the critical problems in affected areas.

Local IsraAID volunteers bring fresh water to residents of Southern Leyte in the Philippines following the devastation of Typhoon Odette on Dec. 21, 2021. Photo by Jeriel Nunez.

“After typhoons, seawater infiltrates wells and other water sources and causes the water to become undrinkable,” said Bernstein.

“Removing the salt particles is very complex and very essential in relief work. Our teams brought a cutting-edge Israeli solution to [the] field to make safe water from the salinated water right in front of the community’s eyes. The response was a deep joy, as they are learning to operate it on their own,” she said.

This technology, Otterpack, is a portable water purification system based on reverse osmosis. Carried in a large backpack, Otterpack can supply up to 120 liters of pure drinking water per hour from any water source on land. It’s powered by a standard rechargeable battery or can be operated manually.

Water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) experts from IsraAID are installing solutions such as Otterpack in communities that have not had water access since the storm. In addition, experts in protection, community resilience, mental health and emergency operations are working with community volunteers to strengthen long-term resilience in the affected islands of Negros and Leyte.

“We have continued distributing urgently needed items, such as blankets and soap, and are now establishing partnerships and infrastructure that will allow us to help thousands of affected Filipinos in their long-term recovery from December’s disaster,” said Bernstein.

IsraAID workers aiding residents of Southern Leyte, Philippines, on Feb. 16, 2022. Photo by Dinah Gorra.

‘We have a real name here’

Bernstein has found that the Filipinos remember with gratitude IsraAID’s assistance after Yolanda.

“We had a really big team here in past years and we are building on those connections. We have a name for ourselves here as a deeply professional organization doing recovery and resilience building,” she said.

IsraAID workers were greeted enthusiastically, for example, by a man who is now the superintendent of the local school system and a woman who used to volunteer with IsraAID and now runs her own nonprofit.

“She was so excited to see us, and wants us to do training for her organization,” said Bernstein.

“People here are so happy to have us. They are warm and welcoming, gracious and hospitable.”

She said IsraAID’s work also includes identifying and protecting vulnerable populations.

“A lot of people’s homes were destroyed, and schools were damaged. Between COVID and the typhoon, kids have been out of school for two full years in these areas,” she said.

“Many of the areas severely affected are coastal and that is where many people make their livelihood,” Bernstein added. “Fishermen lost their fishing boats, coconut farmers lost their trees, poultry farmers had their farms ruined.”

An IsraAID worker testing water quality in Negros in the Philippines. Photo by Sunshine Escaro.

Building resilient spaces during COVID

Bernstein said that IsraAID puts an emphasis on disaster resilience—helping communities build back in a way that ensures the structures and plans are in place for the next emergency.

“Here in the Philippines, it’s not a matter of if there will be another storm, but when, and we’re committed to being here with our partners for the long term to make sure these communities are ready,” she said.

COVID, however, has complicated the relief work.

“Evacuation centers and schools are higher risk places now. Hygiene these days is not just about open defecation but also about washing hands to prevent the spread of the virus,” Bernstein explained.

Furthermore, while social connections strengthen communities, bringing people together also brings risks these days.

For the aid workers themselves, Bernstein said, “COVID makes travel much more complex. There are unending antigen tests as we move from island to island, meeting to meeting. We are doing our work while wearing masks.”

IsraAID’s work in the Philippines is supported by the American Jewish Committee, the Ted Arison Family Foundation and the Diane and Guilford Glazer Foundation. IsraAID is coordinating its ongoing emergency response in the Philippines with partners including JDC and the Philippine Disaster Resilience Foundation.

Founded in 2001, IsraAID has led international responses to disasters and civil strife in more than 55 countries as of December 2021.

For more information, click here.

This article was first published by Israel21c.


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