Peter Power: Aid is starting to get through to the families, but time is not on our side
Baby girl Gwen was only a week old when the devastating Typhoon Haiyan washed her home away. Her mother, Jhana, says she feels lucky that her daughter, her "beautiful angel", survived the strongest storm to have ever hit her country.
Haiyan struck the islands of the Philippines with such ferocious force on Friday, November 8, that it destroyed up to 90pc of everything that stood in its way. Homes, schools, hospitals, power and water networks were all demolished. The destruction is on a scale I have never witnessed before. As the plane landed, I could only see mud and debris where once stood trees and buildings. This is an enormous tragedy for the people here.
Gwen is one of the five million children whose lives have been affected by this brutal storm and who UNICEF, the world's leading children's organisation, is there to help. The situation is dire and emergency aid cannot come quick enough. We are hugely concerned for mothers and children who are trying to survive without food, clean water and shelter. They are getting weaker by the day.
The situation on the ground is also increasingly dangerous for mothers and children. A church in Tacloban converted into a makeshift maternity ward operates without any medical equipment. Women inside have given birth prematurely after walking hours to find safety and their newborns face a precarious start to life. Children on the streets scavenge for food among decomposing bodies. The scenes in Tacloban and surrounding regions are horrific and difficult to comprehend. What I do know is that we must move urgently to save lives.
The immense scale of the damage caused by Haiyan on November 8 made access to those affected extremely challenging for aid agencies, but UNICEF has been on the ground since day one. After the storm hit, we began immediate distribution of local supplies and tonnes of emergency aid were delivered by airlift.
UNICEF's role during this emergency response is to work with the government of the Philippines and partners to prevent further child deaths, stop malnutrition and provide shelter and protective spaces for families. We now has relief hubs in all of the affected areas – Cebu, Roxas, Tacloban and Ormo – and our staff are working night and day to deliver essential supplies to children affected by this disaster.
With people injured, desperate for food and families wandering the roads with nowhere to go, we prioritised the delivery of emergency food, medical supplies and tarpaulins to provide temporary shelter. Our child protection experts have established safe spaces to look after orphaned and separated children. These spaces will become increasingly crucial in the weeks and months ahead as adults work to recover their homes and livelihoods.
On Saturday evening, UNICEF successfully restored the water supply to Tacloban and six surrounding districts, benefiting 200,000 residents. The infrastructure for water was destroyed by the typhoon, leaving the city without clean drinking water. Safe water is essential to protect children from diseases that, when coupled with malnutrition, can be deadly. It also allows families to clean and cook again. We are working to restore sanitation systems to prevent the spread of cholera and typhus.
While there have been some encouraging signs in the delivery of aid, time is not on our side. With every day that passes, children grow increasingly vulnerable to water-borne diseases, separation from family and protection violations such as trafficking, child labour and gender-based violence. People are fleeing the region creating chaotic scenes at local airports. Talk on the ground is increasingly of mass evacuation – such is the extent of the devastation.
UNICEF is there for the children of the Philippines as well as all children suffering in the world today – from Syria to the Central African Republic. We are extremely grateful for the voluntary donations that allow us to help children in emergencies to survive and thrive in these difficult circumstances.
Back home in Ireland, people have responded generously to our Philippines Emergency Children's Appeal. Irish businesses, including Aer Lingus, which is currently collecting donations on all flights, and Ernst and Young, whose Filipino staff led an emotional fundraising drive last week, have mobilised behind us. But the need is great and our resources are stretched. The people I've met here have lost everything. UNICEF urgently needs donations to continue our recovery efforts until every child is safe.
Peter Power is executive director of Unicef Ireland. Readers can support UNICEF Ireland's Philippines Emergency Children's Appeal online at www.unicef.ie or by phoning 01 878 3000.