I’ve seen it happen, time and time again.
Ever since I arrived in the Philippines over seven years ago, when a natural disaster strikes, local officials, supported by the international aid community, promise that they’ll rebuild the affected areas so the new structures will be more resistant to calamities in the future. Scores of experts are called in to share their knowledge, donors pledge millions of dollars in funds, and the government insists that this time it will follow through and coordinate reconstruction efforts to make sure the dwellings are up to standard.
Sadly, the high hopes then turn into empty promises.
As foreign aid dwindles after media attention goes somewhere else and local officials skim off their share from the remaining reconstruction budget, there’s not enough money to build the houses — or at least build them well — and the survivors are given a small handout before they are left to fend for themselves, while the detailed plans submitted by architects and disaster resilience experts rarely reach the communities they were targeting in the first place.
What replaces the rubble is thus the same ramshackle shanties made of thin plywood and corrugated iron roofs, that of course get swept away with the next storm — and this is precisely what’s happening three months after Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines.
Instead of considering long-term plans like relocating the battered city of Leyte to higher ground, or ramping up education efforts so citizens understand how to distinguish between a storm surge and a tsunami, the government has put a former fugitive of justice in charge of the long-term recovery plans, tolerated tiny bunkhouses that don’t meet international standards for the survivors, and ignored the advice of local specialists in building disaster-resilient homes.
Why? Long-term solutions to any problem are rarely implemented in the Philippines, where the 24-hour news cycle, three-year terms for elected officials — except the president — and short-term memory of a generally complacent population mean no one really cares enough about this issue to actually make an honest effort to fix it once and for all. Not even the survivors demand much, as long as they see that they are getting some kind of help — even if it’s not really addressing their long-term needs.
Yes, the country is geographically cursed. It’s part of the earthquake-prone Pacific Ring of Fire, lies straight in the path of tropical storms traveling the same ocean and with no other significant landmass to stop them, and is subject every year to seasonal flooding that is steadily worsening as an effect of climate change.
But no, all this doesn’t mean we should just give up and expect scores of people to die every year — and what would definitely help mitigate the effects of calamities like Haiyan is building disaster-resilient homes.
As a local architect told Devex a few weeks back, these dwellings would:
Have a four-sided slope roof like an elongated pyramid with a rectangular base to lessen wind pressure and decrease the risk of structural destruction over time.
Replace glass windows or at least cover them with wooden or iron storm shutters that can resist strong winds.
Be built with durable and climate-resistant materials and a symmetrical, load-bearing design that adapts to shifting foundations.
Located away from beaches, rivers and other bodies of water, and elevated whenever possible without putting them on stilts.
And that’s not all.
Now is the time to align efforts in home reconstruction with zoning and infrastructure development. That way, not only will the new homes be built the right way, but we’ll also make sure they don’t block storm drainage channels like in the Manila slums — putting citizens in danger when the floods start — and on roads that can withstand the wet tropical climate without having to be constantly fixed to get rid of potholes and other consequences of shoddy building materials to save costs and pocket the money, a common practice in developing nations. Deficient infrastructure is severely hampering development in Asia-Pacific, to the extent that for instance China wants to establish a regional infrastructure development bank.
The overwhelming international response to Typhoon Haiyan has given the country a unique opportunity for the government and the international community to finally prove they can get disaster resilience right. But words must be translated into action, and only top donors have enough clout to compel the government to walk the talk.
Let’s hope this time it’s not business-as-usual, not only for the Philippines but also for outer disaster-prone nations like Bangladesh or Vietnam that can benefit from the lessons learned after Haiyan.
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