The idea of investing in a disaster before it occurs isn’t a new one; it makes logical and even financial sense. While between 1991 and 2010 the financial impact of disasters was around $846 billion, just 0.4 percent of international aid spending during this same period was on preparation.
The number and scale of natural disasters are increasing. More than 98 million people were affected by disasters in 2015, with 22,773 people dying as a result. While this is still a tragedy, it is much lower than the annual average of 76,424 deaths over the last 10 years. This is largely down to successful disaster preparation and early warning systems, but global aid spending still does not reflect this. If we want to continue minimizing the impact of disasters, we must see a shift from the traditional idea of humanitarian aid. We need to see more innovation, the development of partnerships and greater coordination with local community actors to drive pre-emptive action, rather than reaction to disaster events.
Three years after Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines, the complex dynamics surrounding the long-term rehabilitation of affected communities prompted us to dig into the available data and assess some of the accomplishments and setbacks.
Typhoon Haiyan remains one of the strongest typhoons ever to make landfall. The surge storm that followed made more than 4 million people homeless, damaged or destroyed over 1 million homes and killed a staggering 6,300 people. The impact was violent, and the loss great, but it wasn’t entirely a surprise. The Philippines is one of the most disaster prone countries in the world, typhoons are not a rare phenomenon.
The local response at the time was incredible; more than 8,000 Philippine Red Cross volunteers were deployed in the relief efforts. The international community was quick to react. The British public donated over 13 million pounds ($16.4 million) to the British Red Cross, making the Haiyan appeal one of its biggest appeals to date. Yet there are questions we should be asking about the response: could more have been done before the typhoon hit to lessen the disastrous impact? Is our role as humanitarian actors simply to help communities to recover after an event, or is it to also ensure people become more resilient?
For the last three years, the British Red Cross has been working closely with the Philippine Red Cross to help people rebuild their lives in the province of Iloilo, one of the areas ravaged by Haiyan. Much of this work has been focussed on helping the Philippine Red Cross and communities prepare and respond to a disaster before it strikes.
We helped 6,000 families to rebuild their homes. These aren’t simply new homes to replace what was lost. Each house is designed to withstand high velocity wind and flooding, setting families in better stead for whatever the future may bring. Making communities more resilient is also about protecting livelihoods, ensuring people can get back on their feet quickly and if disaster strikes again, they are not left destitute. Part of our program in Iloilo not only helped rice farmers, shop workers and others get back to work with a small cash grant, we also helped people insure their crop or land so that when another disaster struck, the setback wouldn’t be as great.
When Typhoon Haima made landfall over Penablanca in Cagayan province, just a few weeks before the third anniversary of Haiyan, the Philippines was more prepared than it had ever been. In the Philippine Red Cross Operations Room, a new resource set up after Typhoon Haiyan, Red Cross teams monitored the course of the storm and sent out early warning messages and helped the government evacuate tens of thousands of people before Haima struck. These pre-emptive actions saved lives.
The humanitarian community needs to get better at integrating risk reduction activities into all projects and responses so that it becomes part of our way of working, rather than an afterthought. It became very clear after Haiyan that communities must be at the centre of recovery activities. Given how urgent the emergency response was after Haiyan, it took some time to develop these programmes. However, Typhoon Haima has shown how building up community resilience really does save lives. This cannot be done without working closely with local partners, such as Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, after all, international humanitarian organizations will not always be present when a disaster hits.
Humanitarian response must be driven by affected people building resilience and reducing risk in their own communities. There are no quick wins, and no ultimate solutions. Natural disasters will keep happening and there will always be a need to respond. Lives will be lost, homes damaged. However, we know that being prepared and building resilience will minimise the overall impact. We can’t forget that our humanitarian imperative first and foremost is to save lives. With the right investment in resilience we can do that.
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