PHILIPPINES: Mindanao disaster – improving warning systems & profiling of corpses are a must 

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) expresses its deepest condolences to the Filipino people in the cities of Cagayan de Oro, Iligan and nearby areas where over 600 people died and hundreds of others are missing following flash floods due to Tropical Storm Sendong (international name: Washi). Our hearts go out to the families of the dead some of whom are relatives and friends of persons known to us, who still struggles to comprehend the extent of the magnitude of the disaster.

AHRC-STM-208-2011-01.jpgThe Philippines, as a tropical country, is often hit by dozens of tropical storms every year; however, Sendong was particularly disastrous because it hit the areas north of Mindanao that are geographically not prone to typhoons. The disaster, however, speaks to the efficiency or inefficiency of the government’s public early warning system, its capacity to respond to emergencies and how it deals their aftermath. (photo: Aftermath of tropical storm Sendong in Cagayan de Oro City | photo from Facebook of Ritzmond Patricio)

In this instance we have a location where people rarely experience typhoons. The usual warning by the measure of the downpour in ‘millimetres of rain’ and about the location of storm to landfall by ‘radius’ proved to have been disastrous. The people in the affected areas may not have grasped the meaning of this warning language, if indeed the weather bureau had adequately given warning in terms that illustrated the real danger in a way that is understandable to the ordinary people.

AHRC-STM-208-2011-02.jpgThe weather bureau feel that they issued adequate warnings but the fact is that the technical language used did not adequately inform the people they were trying to reach. When the people do not realise that they have to prepare the public warning system in itself is a failure. The purpose of any early warning is to avoid loss of lives and to predict where the disaster will fall in order to ascertain what the government and its apparatus should do. However, as shown in this incident both these objectives were not met.

Therefore, instead of putting the blame at its each other’s doorstep, the weather bureau and the local government officials should both learn from this in order to improve the early warning system to reduce and if possible, avoid loss of life in future. Here, we see the urgent need to develop an early public warning system that is comprehensible to the would-be affected. They should be understandable to ordinary people and not the usual daily ‘weather forecast’ that fail to transmit its importance of its warning. Furthermore, the people themselves must be educated to pay attention to the weather warnings so that they can prepare themselves.

Also, we deeply appreciate the resilience, the compassion and humanity of the Filipino people in helping to save the lives of hundreds of others, particularly those swept into the sea that were rescued by the ordinary people. Their sense of unity and community in times of disaster is very strong wherein it was the ordinary people, who narrated and documented the extent of damage, who had become the sources of reliable and first hand information. They made a great contribution at the early critical hours of the disaster to inform the public and the media of the magnitude of the disaster.

The outpouring of relief, assistance and aid both from within and outside the country have been possible because of these nameless individuals who care for others, their community and their compassionate to narrate theirs and others suffering so as to be able to get some help. The Filipino people should be proud of these people as they serve as an inspiration to improve the condition of their society. This type of attitude and unity is what makes change possible by way of exposing the ills of any society.

The AHRC, on the other hand, also strongly supports the Philippine’s local and national health department to ensure that all the corpses are profiled, had traces of physical identification–wherever possible–for future identification, instead of burying them in mass graves. To bury these bodies akin to ‘rotting garbage’ is not acceptable. In a country where forensic identification is, if not new, then alien to most, it is of great importance to observe strictly the profiling of corpses before they are buried.

The families of the dead and those whose hundreds of others who are still missing must not be deprived of the possibilities of reclaiming their dead, now or in future, for reason of mere convenience and the expediency of the local officials to bury the corpses at once without profiling them. The fear of the spread of diseases and contamination because of the rotting corpses in order to justify the mass graves has already been rejected by health officials as having no scientific basis. Therefore, resources should also be made available on which the unclaimed corpses are profiled, thoroughly documented and safely archived for future identification of those who lost their loved ones.

While there is an urgent need to provide for relief and aid assistance; however, there should also be resources, manpower and expertise made available to make the profiling of corpses possible. This would certainly have great importance in helping the families of the dead, those who lost their loved ones and for the government as well to improve its capacity in dealing with this type of disasters in future having enormous number of fatalities. For humanitarian consideration, to those who have died, who themselves have live their lives, their identities, their stories and relations, must be afforded with compassion so as to ensure that no person disappears without a trace.

We call on forensic experts from private and government institutions, particularly those who have expertise in forensic identification, from inside and outside the country to consider volunteering their expertise and service by working with local and national health officials at the affected area to make that profiling happen. Their contribution would extend beyond helping the families of the dead but also of improving how the government of the Philippines should address disasters of this magnitude in future.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-208-2011
Countries : Philippines,