GUIUAN, Philippines (Reuters) - The head of U.N. disaster relief visited the heart of the Philippine disaster zone on Tuesday and stressed the need for long-term planning as well as emergency relief to ensure farmers and fishermen can resume their livelihoods.
Valerie Amos toured the devastated coastal town of Guiuan in Eastern Samar, where Super Typhoon Haiyan made landfall on November 8 wiping out just about everything in its path, as a government official estimated the reconstruction bill would reach $5.8 billion.
“We’ve had people here for a couple of days and I hope that by tomorrow we will be reaching a number of those coastal communities where they still have their boats but we haven’t been able to get to them with food so we urgently want to get to them with food,” Amos told Reuters.
“But, in addition to that, we have to link it up to our colleagues who are going to help people to plant so that they don’t go hungry next year, help to make sure that people have fishing nets so that they can continue with their fishing and of course, immediately, we have to start to do the assessment so that we know what the longer-term damage is and the cost and how that money will be raised.”
The Philippines and international armed forces and aid agencies are struggling to get help to devastated areas due to the extent of the destruction, which has left four million people displaced, threatening Aquino’s reforms that have helped transform the country into one of Asia’s fastest-growing emerging economies.
In another blow, the Supreme Court ruled that a widely misused fund for legislators’ pet projects was unconstitutional and ordered the money be returned to the Treasury.
The scandal over lawmakers’ misuse of “pork barrel” funds has become the biggest crisis of Aquino’s three-year rule, tainting his image as a corruption fighter and undermining his ability to push economic reforms.
Congressman Ben Evardone, who is from Eastern Samar, said the ruling would make it difficult to raise funds for post-typhoon reconstruction.
“While all sectors of society in the national and international community are in a frenzied mood to look for resources to support the typhoon victims, the Supreme Court appears to be insensitive to our situation,” he told reporters.
The cost of rebuilding houses, schools, roads and bridges could reach 250 billion pesos ($5.8 billion), making it likely that the government will seek cheap loans from development agencies, a senior official said.
If the government is successful in deploying resources for reconstruction, the economy may even grow faster, said Arsenio Balisacan, economic planning secretary, adding the country’s strong economic fundamentals remained intact.
Most analysts don’t see the economy taking a long-term hit. The central bank raised its inflation forecasts for this year and next, but said the faster pace of price increases was not expected to force a rise in interest rates just yet.
Aquino is personally overseeing relief operations in the worst-hit city of Tacloban in one of Asia’s biggest humanitarian efforts which could last months, if not years. An ATM opened under tight security in the city on Tuesday in a symbolic sign of progress.
Authorities estimate more than 3,900 people were killed when Haiyan made landfall. Estimates of the death toll have varied widely, and the governor of worst-hit Leyte province said more than 4,000 people could have been killed on the island of Leyte alone.
The relief effort is key to the fortunes of Aquino, 53, who got off to a bad start when the disaster struck, playing down the extent of the crisis and appearing aloof.
Last week, his popularity was under threat, but - until the Supreme Court ruling anyway - he appeared more confident, rationalizing the extent of the damage.
“There’s been some improvement in the government’s relief efforts,” said Peter Wallace, president of the Manila-based Wallace Business Forum consultancy. “Being able to move to Manila a number of displaced people, provide them with sustenance, we see that happening now. Clearing of the roads have been done, which is also extremely important.”
Tecson John Lim, city administrator of Tacloban, said the central government was trying its best.
“The president has been through a lot. Perhaps some of the things he mentioned might not have been exactly prudent,” he said. “I think he has seen and is learning to put this aside, whatever biases he might have had.”
Additional reporting by Rosemarie Francisco, Eric dela Cruz, Manuel Mogato and Karen Lema in Manila and Nathan Layfne in Tacloban; Writing by Nick Macfie