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  • Writer's pictureUNADAP | United Nations

A super-charged typhoon took my family away. It can happen to you too.

Many of us think about the impacts of climate change as something happening only in the distant future. But for Joanna, a superstorm took the lives of her family and changed her forever.

A young girl lights a candle at the Typhoon Haiyan 4th Anniversary in Tacloban, Philippines (2017) © Roy Lagarde / Greenpeace

It’s 5am, and Joanna Sustento wakes to the strong howling of the wind outside. She knows that a storm is due to hit where she lives, but thinks little of it, reassured by the calmness of her parents. She makes coffee for her father and helps her mother prepare breakfast. As the intensity of the winds increase and water starts entering the house, she realises this isn’t a regular storm.

Ultimately, Joanna would lose almost everything. In November 2013, super Typhoon Haiyan, one of the most powerful storms of all time, tore through the central region of the Philippines, laying waste to the land and killing thousands, including her parents, her eldest brother, his wife, and their three year old son.

There’s no way to recover what has been destroyed. But since that fateful day, Joanna has been working towards rebuilding a community united against the real perpetrators who have unleashed climate change upon us. She’s demanding justice by exposing the links between fossil fuel companies and storms made more extreme by climate change, so that urgent action is taken now, and that what happened to her doesn’t happen to anyone else.

What kinds of setbacks have you experienced in your campaign for climate justice and how have you overcome them?

The greatest problem I’ve ever faced in my life is losing my parents, my eldest brother, sister-in-law and three-year old nephew during Typhoon Haiyan. To this day, I still do not know how I was able to survive and go on with life without my strongest support system. I guess the first thing that really helped me accept reality was when I started writing again. From then on I became comfortable sharing my story with my relatives, friends, and eventually to different communities here and abroad.

To people who haven’t experienced it themselves, how can you describe what it feels like to survive a disaster?

Can you imagine what it’s like to lose your basic human right of living a safe life? Rebuilding your home and trying to recover what’s left again and again every time a typhoon comes? Can you imagine searching for missing loved ones? Counting dead bodies? Can you imagine being forced to flee the home you’ve built for your family because it is no longer safe? Trying to survive all that and at the same time grieving? Trying to cope with the trauma of losing family and friends? And all the while as your government and fossil fuel companies continue to endanger you…?

Authorities collect dead bodies in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan near Tacloban City Hall in 2013. © Matimtiman / Greenpeace

What do you mean when you say climate change and its impacts are an injustice?

The horror brought about by Haiyan did not stop when the typhoon subsided. Life became even more difficult for those of us who were left behind. Many families were displaced and forced to temporarily live in tent cities. Teenagers — especially women — had no privacy, making them more vulnerable to sexual abuse. The poverty rate increased because of damaged livelihoods which made some families resort to child trafficking and drugs.

The biggest injustice, though, is when people in a country like the Philippines continue to suffer greatly whenever catastrophes happen because of the decades of greed and deception by fossil fuel corporations who already knew that the burning of their oil, gas, and coal products would result in deadly and devastating climate impacts. That’s why I, along with other communities around the world, want to hold fossil fuel companies accountable and demand justice and positive change.

Typhoon Haiyan was five years ago. What impacts are your community still facing?

Years after Haiyan, there are still plenty of families in the resettlement areas with no proper housing or livelihood. Some are forced to live dangerously and rebuild their houses near the coast because fishing is their main source of income. Farmers are forced to borrow money when their crops are put to waste every time a storm hits. Farmers and fisherfolk feed the world, but why is it that they are the ones who go hungry every time we are met by catastrophes?

What have you seen and learnt from your community during the disaster and in the years since?

Resilience is a well-known Filipino trait. A lot of people say we are very enduring and adapt to whatever life throws at us. But the reality is some people just don’t have a choice. It reaches a point where people do not demand more from their leaders because they forget they deserve more.

Throughout the years, I’ve learned that pointing out the resilience of a community is not always a good thing. It blinds people, resulting in a failure to provide long-term, effective, proactive and sustainable solutions. And frankly, resilience just becomes an excuse to hold off from taking action against those who are accountable.

What have you gained from being able to tell your own story? What gives you hope?

Telling my story and the story of my community was at first very painful. It still is, but now I get a sense of empowerment whenever I tell our story.

It makes me realise that you don’t need a powerful position to have a voice. Whenever people like me are given a chance to speak to the world, it makes me think that who I am right now and what I can offer is already enough for me to be part of the change we want to see. That’s why I hope that more and more people from my community will be given the chance to be heard because they have millions of stories that deserve to be told, and the world needs to listen.

Copyright: Greenpeace, Story by Rashini Suriyaarachchi

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