The Philippines is no stranger to typhoons—indeed the country experiences an average of 20 typhoons a year—but Typhoon Haiyan, which struck on November 8, 2013, is the deadliest storm in history to hit the country. More than 5,000 people died and over 13 million people in 44 provinces have been affected. Over 5 million people were displaced from their communities, almost all of whom remain within their country. (In comparison, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and Hurricane Katrina “only” displaced 1 to 1.5 million each.) More than a million homes were destroyed or damaged. Just weeks after the massive storm, it’s clear that Typhoon Haiyan will affect the lives of millions of people for months or years to come.
The initial response by both the government and the international community was slow. The Philippines is a country of 7,500 islands, complicating efforts to reach survivors and provide them with aid; another important reason is that the typhoon struck a poor part of the country. But response was also slow because the typhoon badly damaged roads, ports, and airports.
A few days after the typhoon struck, I was hopeful that, in hindsight, we’d come to realize that the response was better than it first appeared. News reports from disaster zones often focus on the chaos and disorder that immediately follows, but when the dust clears, national and international reactions prove to be well-executed. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case in the Philippines, at least for the initial response.
But that doesn’t mean we should write off recovery as a lost cause. Though the Philippine government and the international community stumbled immediately after the Typhoon Haiyan, there’s still much that can be done so life can return to normal.
Before the Storm
To ensure a speedy recovery, there’s plenty that governments can do before a disaster strikes. For example, planning for evacuations is critically important. The Philippines government evacuated over 800,000 people in advance of the storm to evacuation centers, but not all in harm’s way evacuated. Making matters worse, many of the evacuation centers did not withstand the force of the storm. That’s not to say that evacuations are easy. Even in developed countries, they are challenging, as we saw with Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Japan’s Tohoku earthquake in 2011. Those cases, and the experience with Haiyan, suggest that governments need more and better guidance on evacuation planning.
Governments also need to be ready to clear wreckage following a disaster. Responsibilities need to be clearly designated both nationally and internationally, to support debris removal following a disaster. It may not be intuitively obvious as disaster relief, unlike search and rescue missions or distributing food and water, but it is essential. Without passable roads and waterways, relief can’t reach the people who need it most. It is an area which calls for a new form of cooperation between the private sector, the military, governments and traditional humanitarian actors, and an area in which the Philippines was unfortunately ill-prepared.
A Long Haul
Now that the storm has passed, the trickiest balancing act will be providing pressing humanitarian assistance while simultaneously working toward a long-term recovery. Even as the typhoon slips from the front pages of Western newspapers, millions of people still need food, water, shelter and protection. There has been a generous outpouring of assistance—over $300 million in international pledges so far—with many millions more being mobilized within the country. But continued support will be just as important as providing immediate relief needs.
Haiyan devastated a part of the country dependent on farming. Right now, the international community is racing to distribute seeds to farmers by mid-December in order for them to harvest a rice crop four months from now. It’s a difficult program—it is far easier to raise international funds to provide food to hungry people than to supply agricultural tools and seeds. But if those supplies aren’t provided, hunger will last much longer.
Getting those farmers back to their fields—and other workers back to their jobs and children back in school—will be another significant challenge. Over 5 million people were displaced by Typhoon Haiyan. While they were forced to leave their home in a matter of hours, it will likely take weeks, months, or even years for all of them to return home or find other housing and livelihoods. Complicating matters, there are still Filipinos displaced from October’s earthquake on Bohol Island and August’s flooding on Luzon Island.
Most of those displaced by Haiyan are not living in evacuation centers. Instead, they are staying with family or friends or have moved to a different part of the country or are simply camping out in the open. We may never know exactly how many have been uprooted—people forced from their homes rarely stay put, making an accurate count almost impossible. Even as people are leaving the typhoon-affected area for Manila and other cities, others are moving out of shelters to be closer to their homes or are camping alongside highways where they can more easily access humanitarian assistance.
Conditions in temporary shelters are a concern, too. Several hundred thousand displaced Filipinos remain there, and some of those refuges lack privacy and, in some cases, electricity. We know from other disasters that sexual and gender-based violence tends to increase in temporary shelters. While the reports of Filipinos opening their homes to displaced are encouraging, we also know that welcome tends to wear thin when displacement drags on for weeks or months.
The Legal Landscape
Most people think undoing displacement means returning home. However, that isn’t always an option if the destruction is too great. Even when rebuilding homes is possible, it is a mammoth undertaking. It could take years to replace the million-plus homes damaged by Haiyan.
While reconstruction can be daunting, it is almost always easier than dealing with questions of land ownership and tenure. If people don’t have title to their land—either because they’ve never had or needed formal titles or because land registries have been destroyed—even just rebuilding is difficult. Aid agencies have learned that reconstructing the home of a person who doesn’t have clear title to the land practically guarantees social conflict.
On a wider scale, it’s important that countries and municipalities have adequate legal frameworks to cope with disasters in place before disasters strike. The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has developed a set of guidelines on disaster law so governments can make sure their laws and policies are prepared for a disaster. Some of these principles were incorporated by the Philippine government before the typhoon. For example, there is a paragraph in the national Disaster Management Act which refers to the disaster law guidelines. The government has also facilitated international relief efforts by setting up “one-stop shops” to coordinate the work of various ministries and agencies, but there are still reports of NGOs having difficulties getting visas and of difficulties in importing relief items.
The Filipino legal code wasn’t wholly prepared, though. In February of this year, the Filipino Congress adopted a bill on displacement after years of debate, but it was vetoed by President Benigno Aquino in May and has languished ever since. Internally displaced persons have rights the same as anyone else, and had the bill been passed, it could have helped ensure that the rights of those displaced by Haiyan were respected.
President Aquino’s veto may be the least of his worries, though. Disasters like Typhoon Haiyan are complex events that can trip up even seasoned political leaders. When a large-scale disaster occurs, political leaders need to be seen responding quickly and effectively. When they’re not, the consequences can be dire. In the United States, President George W. Bush was judged harshly for his failure to take immediate action following Hurricane Katrina. Five years later, President René Préval of Haiti was berated for his slow and confused response to the 2010 earthquake. In the Philippines, President Aquino has been similarly criticized for failing to respond quickly. It took three days for him to declare a national calamity, and relief was painfully slow to arrive to the affected areas.
While local officials normally lead the immediate response, a disaster of this magnitude makes it imperative that a country’s president not only take charge but be seen taking charge. The way a leader responds to a national tragedy can define his or her leadership. It’s true that presidential visits inevitably draw resources away from the immediate relief effort, but not doing so can be politically ruinous. President Aquino, after an initial delay, seems to have learned this lesson: Six days after the typhoon, his office announced that “the president, as chief executive, is supervising the entire operation.”
Beyond questions of aid distribution, legal preparedness, and political considerations, there’s a more fundamental issue that Haiyan raises—not just for the Philippines but for all countries affected by natural hazards. That is, to what extent should scarce resources be used to prepare for low-probability, high-impact events? Japan is probably the most-prepared country in the world for earthquakes, yet it failed to plan for an earthquake, a tsunami, and a subsequent nuclear disaster.
In the case of the Philippines—all countries, really, but particularly developing ones—it’s hard for a government to dedicate resources for disaster planning when there are already so many unmet needs. For example, in 2011, President Aquino vetoed funding for disaster-preparedness, explaining that that funding for disaster risk reduction, such as better housing, should be prioritized over disaster preparedness.
Ultimately, one of the strongest lessons from Typhoon Haiyan (as well as Fukushima, Haiti and hurricanes in the U.S.) is that, given the reality of climate change, we are going to see more extreme weather events and they are going to be more unpredictable. Governments are going to have to invest more in preparedness for mega-disasters even if it means taking difficult political decisions. It also means more people will be displaced by disasters. We must be prepared to respond quickly and accordingly.