What the Philippines can learn from Haiti, 2004 tsunami

A woman searches through debris in the aftermath of the tsunami in Banda Aceh, Indonesia in 2004. "One of the most critical [lessons] which we have learned time and time again, especially with Haiti and the tsunami in Asia, is the importance of coordination in the relief efforts," said IFRC's Patrick Fuller. Photo by: Jordon R. Beesley / U.S. Navy / CC BY

As relief efforts continue following the onslaught of Super Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, many in the aid community now look back at other major natural disasters such as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004.

The ongoing operation in the Philippines is one of the largest relief drives since those two tragedies, and aid officials are wary that mistakes from the past may be repeated at the expense of victims, putting their situation from bad to worse.

“A lot of the aid funding that reached Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami was wasted because decisions were made hastily and the recovery work was poorly coordinated,” Martin Mulligan, chief investigator for an AusAID-funded relief efforts study, told Devex.

While assistance continues to pour in, the amount of aid given may not necessarily translate to food and supplies distributed to those who need it the most. This is precisely what happened more than three years ago in Haiti, where assistance failed to reach many victims despite the abundant supply. The population is still reeling from the long-term effects of the disaster owing to a lack of comprehensive coverage in relief efforts, according to Patrick Fuller, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ communications manager for Asia-Pacific.

Victims of these two previous calamities may have survived the disasters but the aftermath still lingers all because of the lapses in how aid efforts were coordinated and delivered. So what are the lessons aid organizations and governments can learn from relief efforts in Haiti and Asia for aid operations to be better?

Established coordination mechanism

Everyone can help in these calamities but all forms of assistance should be coordinated to make sure they are sustainable. Fuller — who took part in the IFRC’s relief efforts in Sri Lanka during the tsunami and later in Haiti — mentioned that proper delivery is equally important to the amount of assistance in saving people’s lives.

“I think one of the most critical [lessons] which we have learned time and time again, especially with Haiti and the tsunami in Asia, is the importance of coordination in the relief efforts,” he explained. “This is critical because you have a lot of aid and people coming in, organizations and individuals who genuinely want to help but are not aware or are not used to an established coordinating mechanism.”

In Haiti, Fuller recalled that the coordination mechanism between the government, aid organizations and private individuals who want to volunteer was “very weak.” Relief goods were given to random people, while some aid kits were dropped off in a relief center but never distributed.

Similar problems have happened in the Philippines. At the local level, several instances of inappropriate items donated by people were frequent during relief operations for typhoons Bopha (2012) and Ketsana (2009), including bathing suits, high heels and theater costumes.

Another is the high risk and stress that comes from deploying inexperienced volunteers in disaster zones, increasing the risk and making relief work more stressful. People who want to help should be educated on the proper items to donate and the manner in which they can assist while keeping themselves safe, Fuller said.

Policy and governance

Natural climate phenomena such as typhoons and tsunamis are inevitable, but letting them turn into disasters is our responsibility. This is why putting up policies that tackle disaster management, aid group facilitation and ready access to funding are crucial in making sure disasters won’t happen again or their effects will be mitigated, the IFRC official explained.

The Philippines should thus push for stricter climate-related policies, as climate change and natural disasters are intertwined, Climate Change Commission Secretary Lucille Sering told Devex.

“The Filipino people and the government have no choice at this point but to push for more aggressive adaptation, not just disaster preparation but on mitigation,” Sering added.

Disaster risk reduction funding in the country is still up to each year’s legislature, although the Senate wants to have a separate fund secured for the 2014 national budget. Once completed, this mechanism should allow faster aid delivery to the affected population.

Governance issues should also be given priority, according to Fuller. Success in aid delivery is partly dependent on how aid, goods and personnel can easily enter a country. He cited an instance in Sri Lanka where goods were left on the docks for months due to corrupt customs officials who demanded bribes to clear the entry of the supplies.

“It is critical to have a law that facilitates access for funding and international organizations’ response including customs issues, procurement and visas for volunteers to avoid delays [in aid delivery],” he said.

Make relief sustainable

Another issue is the kind of “Band-Aid” solutions that continue to proliferate in disaster relief from several aid groups and even the government. Relief and rehabilitation should heal people, physically and psychologically, and not just cover up their wounds and be left on their own.

Providing immediate aid such as food, water and shelter is important, but relief efforts should also cover what is needed after the emergency phase — like education, sustainable health care, housing and livelihood — to facilitate sustainable solutions for the victims, Mulligan said.

“Everybody involved in the relief and recovery work in Leyte needs to understand that once the immediate relief work has been completed, it is important to avoid haste in deciding how people might be [given help] because decisions are made in haste and without adequate consultation can have negative consequences for people and groups of people for many years to come,” he explained.

Sustainability is one of the major issues still affecting Haitians today, with families still living in tents provided by aid organizations in early 2010. Mulligan said this should be a lesson learned for the Philippines, especially for the poor, as they are the most vulnerable when it comes to natural calamities like these.

“Poor people, with few resources, are always the worst affected in such extreme weather events because they live in flimsy dwellings and are commonly exposed to the full force of the extreme weather,” he concluded. “More could be done but this should be taken to ensure that this does not cause other problems for the people concerned, such as difficulties in finding employment.”

Read more development aid news online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive top international development headlines from the world’s leading donors, news sources and opinion leaders — emailed to you FREE every business day.

See more:

About the author

  • Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.

Join the Discussion