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The Philippines' Geography Makes Aid Response Difficult


Dr. Richard Brennan is the World Health Organization's director of emergency risk management and humanitarian response and he joins us now from Geneva to talk through the challenges of delivering aid to a nation of more than 7,000 islands. Dr. Brennan, welcome to the program.

RICHARD BRENNAN: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: And first, of those 7,000 islands, I gather about 2,000 are inhabited. Do you have any sense of how many islands might need help in the wake of this storm?

BRENNAN: Well, those assessments are still ongoing right now. Clearly at least hundreds of them will. I mean we are focusing our initial assessments and response activities obviously on the larger, most severely affected islands that have the highest levels of populations. But it'll be days to weeks till we get more comprehensive information from the smaller, more remote islands.

SIEGEL: We're talking about a country of 98 million people. How would you describe the challenges peculiar to the Philippines in coping with the disaster there?

BRENNAN: Well, as you rightly describe, the Philippines is, you know, it's an archipelago of thousands of islands, so the impact of the cyclone was over a wide geographic area, like a 600 kilometer or basically 400 mile swath spread over, you know, so many of these different islands, and there's been such devastation that access to many of these places is extremely limited.

Airports are non-functioning. Roads are blocked. Utilities such as electricity and water are down. Telecommunications non-functioning. So it's been a very, very difficult process to actually get in there, do the assessments and start the delivery of aid. And so - and when you have such a wide geographic spread, it just complicates the logistics and the response efforts enormously.

SIEGEL: And assuming that you can get the logistics working, what kind of assistance, what's the top priority in getting to people?

BRENNAN: Well, it's a combination of things. Shelter is obviously going to be vital. Clean water and sanitation is vital. Health care, the early reports suggest upwards of 10,000 deaths you can associate with tens of thousands of injuries, so people need injury care. They need basic health services. They need prevention for infectious diseases, such as we're very concerned about the poor sanitary conditions and the overcrowding which could result in diarrhea.

There's big gaps in food supplies right now. So it's really those areas - food, water, shelter, sanitation, basic medical care.

SIEGEL: Let me just put to you, you know, a hypothetical. If the difficulty of helping, say, Haiti after the earthquake and all was a 10 there, how difficult is the Philippines?

BRENNAN: If Haiti's a 10, I think that the Philippines would be 11 at this stage. The Philippines, I think it's important to point out, at baseline has a lot more capacity to respond nationally than Haiti did. The Philippines had some solid infrastructure as well, but I think the complexity of this disaster is not only its scale, it's magnitude, but the enormous geographic spread and the fact that this disaster has come on the heels of two other major emergencies in the last few weeks.

You may remember there was a major earthquake in Bohol, one of the larger islands, on the 15th of October. There has been civil unrest with tens of thousands of people displaced in one of the other islands recently. Both those incidents have required substantial national and international humanitarian response. So a lot of the national capacity has been diverted to those areas and that adds to the complexity of the recent disaster.

SIEGEL: Well, Dr. Brennan, thank you very much for talking with us today.

BRENNAN: Thank you very much, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's Dr. Richard Brennan of the World Health Organization, who spoke to us from Geneva. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.