Canada may send up to six helicopters to the Philippines to help its growing military disaster relief team get medical aid to Filipinos on remote islands hit by Typhoon Haiyan.

So far, 118 of the 200-person Disaster Assistance Response Team have left Canada to help clear roads of debris obstructing relief efforts and purify drinking water.

While the first contingent is already on Panay Island, a second wave of 54 Canadian Forces personnel left Wednesday on a large CC-177 Globemaster military transport aircraft from Comox, B.C., to Hawaii, and is expected to arrive in the Philippines on Friday.

The DART team will begin heading Friday to its Panay Island headquarters in the town of Roxas and will be working alongside the Philippine army and regional emergency co-ordination centres.

As requested by the Philippine government, DART will focus on a stretch of coastal area from Roxas east to the town of Concepcion, covering both Capis and Iloilo provinces where nearly 270,000 families were affected by the typhoon.

Lt.-Col. Walter Taylor, DART commanding officer and commander of the joint task force, said that while Panay Island isn’t home to the “complete chaos” in the hardest-hit areas like Tacloban city, it is in dire need of Canada’s help.

'The people are living in the most squalid conditions trying to salvage what they can.'- Lt.-Col. Walter Taylor

“Despite that people didn’t die in the storm, the conditions are ripe for the diseases that you see in situations where people are crammed in evacuation centres without appropriate toilet facilities and clean drinking water, diseases like cholera and typhoid,” Lt.-Col Walter said on the phone from the Philippines.

'Squalid conditions'

Many homes were completely destroyed, crops ready for harvest were uprooted or ruined by salt water and emergency food supplies are running out since the typhoon hit.

“The people are living in the most squalid conditions trying to salvage what they can,” said Lt.-Col. Taylor.

Canada is also waiting for word on whether to deploy three to six Griffon helicopters to help medical teams access some of the remote smaller islands cut off from hospitals on the main islands.

DART will be helping to run water purification units, repair hospital generators and remove debris on roads using chainsaws and heavy equipment to help aid groups access areas blocked by the typhoon.

Col. Stephen Kelsey of the Canadian Joint Operations Command stressed that the goal of DART is not to help with immediate search-and-rescue demands but rather “bridge the gap” to help support governments and humanitarian agencies.

“Our policy as a military force conducting assistance in a foreign country is that we are there in a supporting role,” said Taylor. “We are there to help the host nation. We’re there to help the country that has requested assistance.”

Not the ‘right response’

However, not everyone thinks DART is the best solution at this point.

“We’re not making the right response,” said Samantha Nutt, founder of War Child Canada. “DART is a very expensive initiative,” Samantha Nutt, founder of War Child Canada, told CBC’s The Current earlier this week. “It takes a long time for it to be on the ground.”

Haiti Quake Cda Jacmel 20100120

Canada's disaster assistance response team has helped in numerous disasters including the 2010 Haiti earthquake. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Nutt notes that the U.S. military is already stationed in the Pacific and the Philippine military is on hand.

“Certainly, there might be some added value in a few weeks when it comes to rebuilding the water and sanitation infrastructure and DART certainly has some expertise around that,” said Nutt. “But again, given the cost of that initiative, there are other really important ways that the Canadian government can help and certainly is helping.”

Nutt says she’d like to see the Canadian government providing direct support to the Philippine government and more support to the extensive network of non-governmental organizations on the ground that are already mobilized.

DART came under criticism following missteps in its 2010 Haiti mission. The team arrived in the quake-ravaged country without proper equipment, such as guns and body armour, some members didn’t have the necessary training and some critical medical supplies were bumped from flights, according to a post-mission report.

The report suggested that the “push to deploy rapidly” may have satisfied the “appearance that Canada was doing something,” but “adversely affected” the key goal of providing humanitarian aid.

Ali Asgary, a York University professor who specializes in emergency management, says though the government does post-mission assessments, like the one of the Haiti mission, it's hard to find independent reviews of how well the 17-year-old team is faring.

However, Asgary says now is not the time for debate.

“Discussions around whether we should use it or not at this point is not really too much relevant,” said Asgary. “This is one of the Canadian capacities in responding to international disaster.”

How DART differs

Many countries around the world have similar international disaster response teams, though most are non-military in comparison to Canada’s DART, which is largely made up of Canadian Forces members, notes Asgary..

Teams around the world vary in their specializations. Germany, for example, is equipped to deal with a rapid-response search-and-rescue team, says Asgary.

Although Canada’s team is often referred to as rapid response, it focuses more on the relief period just after the immediate emergency response but before rebuilding begins. DART teams deploy for up to two months.

In some missions, such as the 2010 Haiti earthquake where it provided security, DART goes outside its conventional mandate, said Asgary.

DART is made up of 200 Canadian Forces personnel in total designed to fly out to disasters around the world, helping provide clean drinking water and medical treatment. An affected country or the United Nations must request DART before the federal government will deploy it.

Canadian Forces started the team in 1996 due to its experience two years prior where relief groups arrived in Rwanda too late to save thousands from a cholera epidemic.

Since then, the team has deployed to at least five massive disasters around the world. The latest deployment was to Haiti after the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake.

Before that, it was involved in missions to Pakistan after a 2005 earthquake, the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia, a 1999 quake in Turkey and a 1998 hurricane in Honduras.

"We're proud that our men and women in uniform are once again saving lives and bringing much help to those in need,"  International Affairs Minister Christian Paradis said Thursday.