Planning the recovery: Three observations from the Philippines | Kamal Kishore

18 Dec 2013

damaged building in the Philippines In areas around Tacloban city, even well-engineered buildings suffered serious damage. (Photo: UNPD in the Philippines)

Arriving in Manila only a few days after Typhoon Haiyan, I found myself wondering why we were there in the first place. As we often point out, the Philippines is one of the best prepared nations in the region, with impressive early warning and emergency systems. So why then did Haiyan have such a devastating impact, and how can we avert future emergencies?

One of the first things I noticed upon arriving is how damage, destruction and deaths from the storm varied significantly across the country. Guiuan, for instance, suffered about one tenth of the casualties endured by other regions, although it faced winds of a similar magnitude. It cannot be a coincidence then that the lower number of deaths seems to be directly proportional to how quickly and efficiently the local government responded.

The second observation is that the transition from relief to recovery seems to be moving quickly. A sense of urgency is indeed welcome; however, the key challenge is to not only rebuild quickly but also to do it better, with a long-term view and resilience-building mindset. It is important to remember that during the recovery we are not only rebuilding physical things but also lives, livelihoods and communities.

The final observation (so far) is that we should work with communities. Every place we visit tells us the same thing — people want to be involved in deciding what is rebuilt and how. It is communities themselves who know where and how the defenses failed and they should also decide what gets rebuilt.  Those affected by Haiyan are not just bystanders. They need to lead this whole process.

In the Philippines we can help make this happen by supporting local initiatives. For example, last week when I was in Ormoc, which is still without electricity, I saw people charging 20 to 30 pesos per half hour to recharge a phone using car batteries. This may seem insignificant, but this kind of homegrown and spontaneous ingenuity demonstrates the resilience of affected people in the Philippines. We need to capitalize on this.
We have an opportunity to help the Philippines build back better. This needs to be done thoughtfully and be informed by the best technical know-how we can muster. We need to do careful planning, pause to consider whether something should be rebuilt or not, and consider the implications of building a different structure or empowering a different, diversified livelihood. Let’s embrace the challenge of being swift and thoughtful at the same time. Not one or the other.

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