Let’s apply the disaster recovery lessons already learned

Reconstruction and rehabilitation will take time, but proper planning for recovery efforts should be instituted now. Photo by Edgar De Jesus, senior research officer at Devex, on-site in Tacloban on day 13 post-Haiyan.

A month after Typhoon Haiyan devastated parts of central Philippines, government officials, urban planners and development workers have begun to set in motion long-range rehabilitation plans.

Local Filipino planning professionals have not been idle. A group of volunteer urban and environmental planners, who are also members of the Philippine Institute of Environmental Planners, are providing on-the-ground technical assistance. The aim is to strengthen rehabilitation and coordination efforts between local and national government officials, nonprofits, private sector actors, and aid workers.

Mark de Castro, founder and president of environmental planning firm EnPraxis, told Devex that the volunteer group is working with organizations such as the Japan International Cooperation AgencyAsian Development Bank and U.N.-Habitat and with government agencies, including the Climate Change Commission and the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, to build a central coordination and disaster-planning framework. These planners will be vital in assisting government officials and providing the necessary disaster, urban or environmental expertise to draw up long-term, sustainable recovery plans.

Fortunately, the Philippines has already learned some disaster recovery lessons that should help people on the ground in Eastern Visayas and stay relevant as the country faces future natural calamities.

The three R’s: Rehabilitation, reconstruction and relocation

Following destructive typhoons Ketsana and Parma — known in the Philippines as Ondoy and Pepeng — the Institute of Philippine Culture conducted an analysis which determined that emergency relief and short-term financial assistance can cover essential basic household needs such as consumption, medical expenses and housing repairs, but they do not address the persistent lack of capital that would allow people to resume a profitable livelihood activity.

While international aid groups have determined effective ways to distribute aid immediately following a calamity, some systems encourage dependence over time. Andrea Fitrianto, an architect and planner who played an active role in the rehabilitation of Aceh, Indonesia, after the 2004 tsunami, contends that outside assistance should be limited to a period of two months following a large natural disaster and that issuance for a longer period of time could create dependency and harm social cohesion.

Rehabilitation requires getting people to work again, which will be a pressing challenge considering Haiyan caused more than 70 percent of farmers and fishermen in the central Philippines to lose their primary source of income. Here are a few livelihood lessons we have already learned and can be applied:

  • Livelihood training programs must be relevant within the local context and marketplace or they will not be useful. With the fishing industry incapacitated due to a major loss of boats and ports after Haiyan, a WorldFish Centerreport advocates diversifying coastal livelihoods to facilitate rehabilitation. Alternative livelihood options should be tested against social and technical capacities to confirm that they are realistic and sustainable after external aid ends.

  • Many aid experts endorse cash-for-work programs to address immediate income needs, but warn that beneficiaries should be made aware when such programs will end. Fitrianto and other experts stress that these types of programs require stringent supervision and control as they are susceptible to mismanagement and corruption.

  • Agriculture and livestock assistance should be carefully planned and distributed. For instance, before giving out seeds, give tools to repair agricultural fields. Distributing animals shortly after disaster may provide only immediate relief. In her on-the-ground research, “Coping After Typhoon Pepeng: A Case Study of Indigenous Practices and External Aid in the Cordillera, Philippines,” Floor Leeftink of Wageningen University discovered that disaster victims were in such a dire situation they ended up eating or selling the animals, or they had neither money nor space to feed and house them.

Housing and reconstruction are other major concerns. Living conditions and access to services at temporary shelters tend to deteriorate, and the sooner permanent housing systems are set in place, the better. The following reconstruction tips could be useful as the post-Haiyan rebuilding effort progresses:

  1. Purchase materials locally. Leeftink asserted that nongovernmental organizations should purchase housing materials from local sources or give money directly to beneficiaries instead of purchasing materials from far-off urban centers. Post-Pepeng, the Philippine Red Cross found purchasing materials from Manila and then transporting them to the Cordillera a logistical nightmare.

  2. Decide who is responsible for the reconstruction of houses — the government, international or local NGOs, or disaster victims themselves. Leeftink encourages external aid providers to help the local community to utilize its own capacities, to build “bayanihan” — the spirit of communal unity and effort — and sense of ownership. Residents, however, should be given considerable time to rebuild their homes. Disaster victims who are too busy trying to recover their livelihoods may not be able to dedicate enough time to finish construction quickly.

If rebuilding homes and other structures in the same areas is unfeasible or undesirable, the government often resorts to resettlement. IPC researchers found that many communities were reluctant to move to areas outside their “barangay” or neighborhood for fear of not being able to find a suitable livelihood in a new resettlement area. They also feared losing their current social support mechanisms. Relocation sites without proper infrastructure, community facilities or livelihood opportunities are unattractive and do not convince residents to move.

With resettlement arises the issue of land rights, tenure and access. In a post-calamity situation, the government is typically forced to create accommodating policy and laws to support victims who have lost their property title documents or were originally informal settlers.

Public participation is key

Nearly all disaster management and development experts agree that local leadership and community-based organizations are essential to long-term recovery. This is especially true in the Philippines — a country with a strong civil society and empowered local government. IPC researchers discovered that sites where residents were satisfied with recovery programs tended to have coordinated and involved barangay and municipal officers collaborating with community organizations.

Informal actors, such as local citizen volunteers, can also play an important role. Researchers stress that local residents can and should be involved in community mapping, housing design, livelihood planning, and more. Self-managed infrastructure construction is also a way to spur local economic activity while building social cohesion and empowerment.

Certain Haiyan-affected coastal areas have been identified by the national government to be “no-build zones” because of high vulnerability to future disaster. While this policy technically makes sense, implementation will prove challenging on the ground. Residents might not want to leave their home, property, community or livelihood (i.e., fishing) and be unwilling to move away from the coasts. Residents need to be involved because it is they who know what kind of life they can live, and what type of livelihood they are willing to engage in.

“Unfortunately, donor driven or top-down reconstruction efforts too often do not comply with the immediate needs and capacities of aid beneficiaries, resulting in bad project outcomes,” Leeftink told Devex.

Without integrating a strong public process into relocation and reconstruction, the community may be less willing to take ownership of resettlement, resulting in abandonment of or alterations to the structures. This means wasted time and resources.

If planners are truly committed to a community decision-making process, the methodology behind empowering residents should be tested with certain considerations. In her case study, Leeftink posed questions that should be considered in such projects, including:

  • To what extent is the project really participatory?

  • On the basis of what kind of information do people decide?

  • How does participation influence the outcome of projects?

  • Are there alternatives or is it a take it or leave it situation?

‘Build back better’ with disaster risk reduction

In an ANC interview this past June, Albay Governor and U.N. Green Climate Fund co-Chairman Joey Salceda claimed that the months following a disaster are the “best chance” to use risk reduction funds. “In other words,” Salceda said, “it is rehabilitation but you inject immediately risk reduction.”

Disaster risk reduction is a systematic approach to reduce risks and vulnerabilities to natural disaster. Since Haiyan caused great damage to existing infrastructure, there is an open window after the debris clears to instate environmentally friendly and disaster-resilient physical and land-use planning.

Typhoon-prone areas should require resilient buildings to be constructed under better design standards. The thousands of collapsed buildings or whole buildings without roofs in Eastern Visayas exposed construction flaws. Flood-prone areas — basically all of Tacloban — need better drainage canals and waterways. Even before Haiyan, Tacloban was plagued with frequent flooding.

DRR also involves well-planned, pre-disaster activities, including but not limited to acquisition of basic materials and equipment for relief operations, implementation of disaster preparedness training to cover the broader community and not only local officials or community leaders, and putting in place a local system of relief and recovery operations.

“Some cities, such as Guiuan, had good disaster preparation — they had relief goods ready and had moved people to rehabilitation centers before the storm,” Lara de Castro commented. But other cities did not have these preventive measures in place. Felino Palafox, famed Filipino architect and president of the Philippine Institute for Environmental Planners, recently criticized Tacloban’s lack of preparedness.

Another small indicator of DRR success is the small island of San Francisco. Residents there had been doing disaster preparedness drills since 2010, which strengthened disaster awareness, information dissemination and empowerment of the community. Their efforts proved fruitful, as well-planned evacuation resulted in zero casualties during typhoon Haiyan.

DRR will help local communities become self-sufficient and strong, which is in the interest of international aid organizations and the country itself. Officials from San Francisco, Guiuan and Albay can meet and train other local officials in disaster-prone regions of the Philippines. It would be one of many steps toward building domestic expertise.

Only after Typhoon Pepeng did the central government enact the The Philippine Disaster Act of 2010, which allows local government units to use up to 70 percent of local calamity funds for disaster prevention and preparedness measures. Prior to that, calamity funds were tapped post-disasters as a response mechanism. The 2010 act has emboldened LGUs to embrace and take action on disaster readiness and risk reduction.

However, barangays still need adequate support to invest in DRR, not just on paper. Materials for rescue operations, stocks of food, emergency power generators, medicines and gas, among others, are much required resources that the national government can facilitate.

More than a thousand people die yearly due to natural disasters in the Philippines, a country that experiences an average of 20 typhoons per year. With better disaster readiness, the next major natural disaster will hopefully not cost the thousands of lives that Haiyan took.

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About the author

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    Janet Lau

    As a development analyst, Janet contributes to Devex's analysis of global development business trends. At Devex, she can combine her passion for sustainable urban and social development with her business background. Her past experience includes urban sociological research, transportation planning, communication networks for global agricultural producers, education, finance and banking.

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