In the Philippines it's best to prepare for the worst

Alanah Torralba / IFRC
Alanah Torralba / IFRC
Tatu Blomqvist
Jarkko Mikkonen
Jarkko Mikkonen

Floods, earthquakes, typhoons and landslides. The Philippines with its hundred million inhabitants and over 7000 islands is constantly tormented by disasters.

Bohol earthquake
  • A deadly 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck the island of Bohol in the Philippines on the 15th of October.
  • Strongest earthquake to hit these islands in more than 20 years.
  • Lives lost: 220.
  • Injured: 770.
  • Displaced: 345,000 people - 1/4 in evacuation centres.
  • Houses destroyed: At least 12,700.
  • Houses damaged: 56,000. 

A cheerful young woman sits in the meeting room of the Finnish Red Cross headquarters. On a Thursday afternoon Ana Mariquina is still able to talk about her work amongst catastrophes with a smile on her lips, even though she has just arrived the same day from Manila via Hong Kong to Helsinki-Vantaa airport. Mariquina is participating on a three-day course in project management.

- It's really alarming that we have had so many different kinds of disasters this year. First there were the usual floods in August brought on by the monsoon rains, then sporadic fires and thereafter the disturbances in Zamboanga. And now this earthquake, Mariquina lists.

Over 20 typhoons can be added to the lineup of disasters that have hit the Philippines' remit since January. Five typhoons have reached land and caused massive floods and landslides.

- Like our general secretary Gwendolyn Pang always says, prevention should be a way of life; not a thing that is remembered only when the disaster strikes, but a part of everyday life.

From the corporate world to aid work

27-year-old Ana Mariquina studied to become a diplomat and worked in the corporate world for some time, until she got tired of the monotomy of the work and decided to apply for a job at the Philippine Red Cross.

- I'm happy to be doing this work, even if it's demanding and stressful at times. I feel good being able to help people to help themselves.

In spring 2011 the Finnish Red Cross initiated the Disaster Risk Redcuction Management project together with the Philippine Red Cross, which aims to help the Filipino people to prepare for disasters. Mariquina has worked as project officer for the project since August 2012.

First time that Mariquina was put to the test was in December 2012, when a super typhoon struck Southeast Philippines, where she was sent to assess the situation.

- I saw what happens, when people decide not to listen to the warnings of authorities. I decided that this was not going to happen in my responsibility area.   

Always prepare for the worst

When Mariquina is asked about the future, she says without hesitation: always be prepared for the worst. Preparing for the worst is an integral part of the life of this woman both when it comes to dealing with disasters and with people. Her diplomacy studies certainly haven't gone to waste.

- The hardest part is to maintain good relations with the local authorities. Just when we've got the mayor or the leaders of the barangay communities aware of the activities of the Red Cross, the leaders change and we need to start our marketing all over again. This project started in January, we had elections in May and another one in October, Mariquina sighs.

Barangay is the smallest administrative area in the Philippines. In Mariquina's responsibility area there are ten barangays in Aklan province and five in the city of Caloocan located in great-Manila area. There are plenty of challenges both on the countryside and in the city.

- The mayor and community leaders do not necessary want anything else from the Red Cross than aid equipment. We've been even asked for an ambulance. Unfortunately, this is how they see us, even though we don't work that way.

Most volunteers are women

One of the main goals for the disaster preparedness project coordinated by Mariquina is to establish a "143" voluntary preparedness team in every barangay. The combination of numbers stand for one leader and 43 other volunteers, who all are experts in disaster preparedness, first aid, health, mental support and blood service.

- We call them RC143. "RC" stands for "Red Cross", whereas "143" means "I love you" in the Philippines. Our volunteers are the eyes, ears, hands and feet of their territories. They can tell us what is happening in their area, so that we can help. And of course we teach them how to help themselves.

Mariquina says most of the volunteers are women. They are everything from housewives to farmers and authority employees.

- When I go to educate our volunteers, I see how happy they are for the disaster preparedness and first aid abilities they've acquired. Our volunteers are crucial for us, since continuous catastrophes are already taking their toll on our employees.

Trust the children

Another important part of the disaster preparedness program is collaboration with schools.

- It is especially important to educate the children. I think that people believe children more easily than adults. Especially when it comes to disaster preparedness. Information will pass on from the kids to their parents, siblings, friends and cousins.

The Red Cross arranges lectures in schools and hands out material, such as coloring books, where facts about disaster preparedness is told through comics. The students also acquire first aid training, participate in youth camps and get leadership education.

- Red Cross has started up youth clubs in five schools. I've noticed how students who are able to give first aid to their peers in case of small injuries are more self-confident. We want to empower children and the youth, give them responsibility, Mariquina smiles.