One month after Typhoon Haiyan: Rebuilding a just and resilient society

Lan Mercado

Blog post by Lan Mercado

Oxfam Great Britain, Deputy Regional Director in Asia
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This post was written by Lan Mercado, Oxfam’s Deputy Regional Director in Asia. She served as Oxfam’s Country Director in the Philippines from 2001-2009. It was written with contributions from Shaheen Chugtai, Deputy Head of Oxfam’s Humanitarian and Security Issues Team, and research from Paht Tan-Attanawin, Oxfam Project Officer.

Two women, hearts broken, hands bruised and bleeding, their faces smeared by tears that fall silently at every hint of memory and by the grime that rises from piled fragments of former homes: one, Marcelina Gallano, an overseas worker in Dubai, following the odor of rot and clawing through rubble to search for the body of her only daughter Girly so she can bury her along with Girly’s children; the other, Rhodora Tiongson, who started a life in Bantayan Island after she fled from Negros and a husband who battered her, hammering scraps of wood and tarp to build herself a shelter. These are the people whose lives Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) destroyed, but remain brave enough to hope for some kind of future. For them and four million others displaced by the disaster, each day spent on the struggle to survive is a day just that – a struggle.

One month on: a snapshot of the response

At around 4:30 on 8 Nov 2013, Tyhoon Haiyan (locally, Yolanda) ploughed central Philippines from east to west, 315km/hour swirling winds dumping volumes of rain and whipping the sea, which rose to as high as 7.5 meters and drowning places along its path, many of which are less than five meters above sea level. By noon, 11.2 million people across nine regions had been affected, thrown into chaos—that’s 13% of the Philippines’ total population. On month on, close to 2,000 are still missing, 5,670 are recorded dead and the number is rising.  The government pegged the total cost of damage at PhP34B, PhP17B ($790M) for damage on infrastructure and PhP17B for damage on agriculture. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ (OCHA) most recent estimate of the humanitarian action plan is $348M.

One month on, an estimated three million people had received food assistance which includes rice, high energy biscuits and emergency food products. Over 11,300 households had received rice seeds, vegetable seeds, fertilizer and agricultural tools. More than 36,000 households have tarpaulin sheets or tents. Efforts to reach another 400,000 households are underway. About 80% of people still in Tacloban City now have access to clean water, while about 60,000 hygiene kits had been distributed altogether. These plus health care, protective services and cash transfers are helping to keep families alive, prevent outbreaks of disease, and rebuild livelihoods.

But there remains a long way to go. Compared to urban areas, remote rural communities only have local charitable initiatives, individual benefactors, businesses and churches as lifelines—at least in the first three weeks. Aid is inadequate, and hunger and malnutrition are stalking survivors. Eastern Visayas has received the bulk of attention, followed by Central Visayas. Western Visayas has received very little.

Yet, compared to other disasters, the world was very generous to this one. Within the first three weeks of the response, US$391 million in humanitarian assistance was delivered. According to Oxfam’s initial analysis, a large number of countries gave far more than their “fair share” of the total (relative to their Gross National Income): large donors such as the UK, the US, Japan, Australia, Canada, Sweden, the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, but also smaller countries like Denmark, Luxembourg, and New Zealand. A number of Persian Gulf countries and multilateral organizations such as the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the European Commission gave substantial amounts, and so did countless private individuals all over the world.

ASEAN response

The regional disaster response mechanisms provided by the ASEAN Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response (AADMER) swung into motion. A team from the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance (AHA Centre) was on the ground on Day 2 to help the government assess the scale of the disaster and coordinate the regional response.

Funds, search and rescue missions, military assets to support the response, drinking water and tons of rice, medicines, medical personnel, and field hospitals were deployed by Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar and Vietnam also sent goods and medicines and pledged more funds for the response.

Citizens from a number of ASEAN countries mobilised to collect donations in cash or in-kind, and found ways to send these to the Philippines either through individual Filipinos, NGOs or Philippine embassies.

To be poor is to be vulnerable

To struggle for dignity and decency is not new to the likes of Marcelina and Rhodora. Poverty has long been the story of the places that Haiyan pummelled. Eastern Visayas is the country’s third poorest region, and first on the list of areas with the highest income inequality. In 2012, 37% of its population or 1.7 million people were subsisting with less than P90 a day, the rough equivalent of the global $2/day poverty line.

Farmers and fisherfolks are poor because agriculture suffers from chronic underinvestment. For example, the lack of roads constrains farmers and fisherfolks’ access to markets. The inadequacy of infrastructure and transport is an obstacle to inclusive economic growth, and a hindrance to disaster relief efforts that could not easily fan out to areas outside of urban areas. More importantly, agrarian reform is weakly implemented. Across all the provinces hit by Haiyan, hectares and hectares of farmland remain in the control of rich families, representing 12% of total lands waiting to be distributed. Lack of tenurial security also threatens fishing households who are evicted to give way to resorts and other private investments favoured by government in foreshore areas and coastal zones. Naturally, poor people search for better opportunities, often in cities, sometimes overseas. Many, however, still end up poor.

This is also a place where women face obstacles, despite the Philippines being ranked 5th in the world for narrowing the gender gap. Men dominate the workforce, with only 50% of women participating in it. In urban areas, women hold white-collar jobs, but many are in the informal sector where legal protection is absent. Gender inequalities in access to resources, entitlements, and the division of household labor make rural women the poorest of the poor in Eastern Visayas. Such poverty has made women and children vulnerable to human trafficking, and earned for Eastern Visayas the notoriety of a hotspot.

The record-breaking strength of Typhoon Haiyan was a major factor in the devastation that happened, but poverty and inequality were the underlying causes of vulnerability for the majority of the displaced. When Typhoon Haiyan hit, one-third of Tacloban’s homes had wooden exterior walls, and one in seven homes had grass roofs. Even with a lesser storm, the level of damage to shoddy housing would have caused poor people to rebuild damaged or lost homes with money they didn’t have.

Three Rs needed: Recovery, rehabilitation, risk-reduction

The humanitarian response is still gathering pace, but President Benigno Aquino has already approved a 3-phase plan for the recovery and rehabilitation of areas and communities ravaged by Typhoon Haiyan. The move is a welcome one, especially as it signalled leadership. According to Malacañang, the plan’s phases include immediate assistance to affected areas, the expansion of initiatives and programs in the medium term, and full recovery and rehabilitation in the long term. It focuses on shelter and reconstruction, power restoration, livelihood and employment, environment and resettlement, psychosocial care, and resource generation and allocation.

President Aquino appointed former Senator Panfilo Lacson to lead the rehabilitation. In interviews, Mr. Lacson said that he had discussed the rebuilding of land titles and records that were lost during the typhoon with the Land Registration Authority. He is concerned about land grabbers, new zoning codes, and the difficulty of restoring houses and government buildings without knowing the real owners.

Rehabilitating the storm-ravaged areas presents a valuable opportunity for addressing the very conditions that make poor people vulnerable. Typhoon Haiyan ripped the structures off the land as if to symbolically give our country the chance to replace iniquitous old arrangements with new, just and risk-reducing social, cultural, economic and political institutions.

This early, no-build zones along foreshore lands are being mentioned, and the relocation and resettlement of fisherfolk’ communities implied since municipal fishers usually establish their settlements here. But the enactment of the Philippine Fisheries Code in 1998 stipulates the zoning of fisherfolk settlements near fishing grounds, and protects their rights to settlements along areas where their livelihoods depend.

Relocation and resettlement issues, especially for coastal communities must be consulted and agreed with fishing communities, for without access to the sea, they will wither and die. Municipal fishers contribute 36% to the P80M total value of fisheries production in 2011, compared to only 26% from commercial fisheries. Western Visayas’ produced 450,886 metric tons (MT); Eastern Visayas, nearly 210,000 MT; Central Visayas 240,073 MT. The Department of Agriculture placed the total number of affected farming and fishing households at 202,410, or a total of 865,305 individuals or 22% of those displaced.

Fisherfolk settlement areas must be assigned as part of a comprehensive land use plan developed and agreed with them by the local government. This should likewise ensure security of tenure, as most foreshoreland where fisherfolk settle are public lands. Discussion of less risky settlement areas for fishing communities must be done not only in consideration of their marine-based livelihoods, but also of their role as stewards and resource managers.

Strong ecosystems and improved natural resource management support livelihoods and biodiversity, and can reduce disaster risk by providing environmental buffers. In Philippine coastal areas, rural women manage mangrove forests and marine sanctuaries as part of broad adaptation interventions. These women-managed areas reflect the unique role and contribution of rural women in leading and managing natural resources upon which they depend for livelihoods. Communities should be supported to identify priority opportunities that improve the quality of coastal defenses, such as replanting mangrove forests where appropriate. Mangroves can reduce storm surge levels by up to half a meter for each kilometer of mangrove that the storm surge passes through, and reduce the height of wind and swell waves by 13- 66% within the first 100m of mangroves.

A previous major disaster, Typhoon Ketsana (Ondoy), pushed Congress to pass the Philippine Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act and shifted the country’s disaster management paradigm from reactive to proactive. If Typhoon Haiyan can move the National Land Use Act (NLUA) from a proposed bill into law, it will do a lot to frontload risk reduction in development planning. NLUA prioritizes life and safety, and thus states that extremely hazardous and high risk zones must be cleared from all forms of human-made constructions, which means settlements and big private investments. Under it, land use and physical planning must identify, determine and evaluate appropriate land use and allocation patterns such that disaster risk reduction, climate-risk based planning, and the meaningful participation of the basic social sectors are promoted. People’s participation is crucial since NLUA also states that settlements within geohazard areas shall not be allowed. Where   geohazard zones have existing settlements, concerned government agencies shall assist local governments and settlers in “instituting safety and corrective measures to address the potential danger or risk.”

Lessons from Typhoon Ondoy in 2009

Comparisons were being made between the Philippines and Haiti, Japan and Aceh in Indonesia where disasters also wrought destruction and despair. We don’t need to go outside the country for post-disaster lessons that led to better local governance.

Aside from Albay, the country’s leading light on DRR, the municipal and provincial governments of Rizal and Laguna have effective local institutions that plan, spend and partner with communities and civil society in using hazard maps and early warning systems, building the capacity to respond, and understanding and implementing the PDDRM law. Many factors drove the change, but the political commitment of the government and the engagement and cooperation of people were the most crucial.

Technical fixes are important but real rebuilding starts here, in improving the capacity of communities and local governments. In a region with major deficiencies in delivering public services and targeting poverty reduction programmes, national and local government must work shoulder-to-shoulder with a range of actors to pick up the pieces and rebuild a better, more resilient society.

Lan Mercado is Oxfam’s Deputy Regional Director in Asia. She served as Oxfam’s Country Director in the Philippines from 2001-2009. This article was written with contributions from Shaheen Chugtai, Deputy Head of Oxfam’s Humanitarian and Security Issues Team, and research from Paht Tan-Attanawin, Oxfam Project Officer.

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