In the dark of night, the winds howled and the waves crashed. In the Philippines, they called it Yolanda, the super-typhoon that ripped through the central islands of the country before dawn on November 8, 2013. Winds swirling at close to 200 mph dumped volumes of rain and whipped the sea, making it rise 25 feet high before coming down to pound houses to smithereens and snuffing out thousands of lives.
Daybreak revealed a broken country, and a people's fighting spirit. By noon that day, millions of people across nine regions of the Philippines had been thrown into chaos. I remember writing with dread that people would struggle with clean water, food, shelter, privacy, security and fear of the unknown. Humanitarian actors tried mightily to help meet these needs but one month later, on December 2013, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the Philippines reported that "food and other urgent support is not sufficiently reaching remote areas due to logistical challenges."
I also remember that while my heart was with my fellow Filipinos, I had to watch Yolanda as it tracked towards Viet Nam, Cambodia and Laos. I prayed that, as it had already taken too much from my country, that it would dissipate and disappear over the sea from where it came.
Looking back a year later, the statistics are no less heart wrenching: more than 6,000 people killed and 4.1 million displaced. To date, 475,000 people are still living in unsafe or inadequate shelters and nearly 25,000 people are still in evacuation centers. Joy, a village health worker from an interior barrio in northern Cebu, was one of those left homeless. I was doing Oxfam’s recovery assessment and Joy helped me talk to families whose houses had been destroyed and livelihoods ruined, who were poor before and even poorer after losing the assets they built up over many years during the storm. I asked Joy to show me her house and she brought me to a pile of sticks. Right before Yolanda hit, Joy had paid PhP15k of her savings from selling vegetables to have electricity installed in the house that she and her husband built, only to lose everything.
Yolanda will not be the last storm that will devastate the Philippines and other countries in Asia, the most disaster-prone region of the world, according to the United Nations Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR). Over the past 20 years, Asia has borne almost half of the estimated global economic cost of all disasters, amounting to almost $53 billion annually. Climate-related disasters are compounding the risks for people and will keep coming.
Opportunities for transformation
A year ago, I saw opportunities for social transformation in Yolanda’s wake. Today, I do know that most governments in Asia have established policies around disaster and climate change preparedness. However, plans are being implemented with varying success. Oxfam’s latest reports, Can’t Afford to Wait and In the Shadow of the Storm confirm that greater political will, more resources and better coordination are required to protect vulnerable groups from the threats of disasters, including those caused by climate change.
In the case of the Philippines, Oxfam found that while the Philippine government has shown leadership in the humanitarian response and rebuilding efforts, plans have not translated to real impact because of a lack of money and coordination in local communities. And, in order for the investments to work, they must include displaced people in decision making and take their needs into account. For example, new housing should not be built far from jobs like fishing and agriculture, or families will not be able to resume their work and self-sufficiency.
Meeting the climate challenge
Yolanda and other large-scale disasters in Asia have taught us that we all must pitch in. Regional cooperation is crucial and we have the chance to ask our leaders to step up and address this critical issue. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) can do a lot more to boost financing for national climate adaptation. As a community of nations, we ought to stand together and collectively secure the financial support we need from developed countries at the upcoming international climate meeting in Lima, Peru in December 2014.
One year ago, I wrote that we must make each life that was lost count. I had hoped that Yolanda would serve to transform us as individuals and as a country, or we are cursed to be haunted by ghosts. One year later, there are glimmers of change, but certainly not enough. Yet, we cannot give up. On the contrary, our continued efforts must be the force to steer international and regional institutions, national and local governments, and citizens to #maketherightmove towards climate justice and resilience.
Lan Mercado is the Deputy Regional Director in Oxfam in Asia, a passionate campaigner and Filipina.
1. (Top) Oxfam water facility, after Typhoon Haiyan. Anibong district, Tacloban, Philippines. September 2014. Photo: Simon Roberts/Oxfam
2. Joy and her husband in front of what’s left of their home. Dec 2013. Photo: Lan Mercado/Oxfam
3. (Bottom) Bito, 7, was part of a group of children playing on the beach in San Jose, Tacloban, wearing superhero costumes made from tarps, empty relief goods, and trash bags. Photo: Simon Roberts/Oxfam