Her Stories beyond Numbers: Women at the Forefront of Typhoon Response and Recovery in the Philippines

by Dr. Selva Ramachandran, Resident Representative and Remelizza Joy Sacra-Dejucos, Communication Consultant

March 29, 2022

While disasters know no gender, their impacts are disproportionately felt more by women and girls. The United Nations Global Humanitarian Overview 2019 data shows that “disasters on average kill more women than men or kill women at younger age than men.”

In Asia Pacific, the Philippines is one of the most vulnerable countries to the impacts of the worsening climate crisis. Natural hazards further aggravate the existing gender inequality caused by underlying factors such as socio-economic factors, power dynamics, and traditional norms. These immediate impacts range from the loss of livelihood to increased workload – care work and household recovery – to gender-based violence that is prone to occur when there is lack of safe space and women-friendly facilities in evacuation centers or transitional shelters. When the inequality gap widens, we face long term consequences that are unfavorable to women and girls.

The participation of women in disaster risk reduction and recovery is essential because they are more likely to provide insights and solutions from first-hand experiences. They understand better their vulnerabilities and how women and girls are differently impacted by disasters. In the context of local governance, women leaders play a crucial role in uncovering barriers that women face during calamities, and, at the same time, in ensuring a more inclusive recovery path through policies and programs.

Typhoon Odette damaged over 34,000 houses in Dinagat Islands Province, including the home of Governor Arlene “Kaka” Bag-ao who remained in the evacuation tent weeks after the typhoon.

A month after Typhoon Odette struck the country, Governor Arlene “Kaka” Bag-ao of Dinagat Islands was documented still living in a tent in the evacuation center because her house was also damaged by the typhoon. Governor Kaka is the third female governor of the province since it was founded in 2006. While staying in the evacuation center, she went back and forth the Provincial Operations Center to ensure that the essential government services of the capitol were running and could cater to the people’s needs.

During our meeting, we saw how Governor Kaka mobilized her team and organized different clusters for immediate response to the devastation caused by typhoon Odette in Dinagat. She was quick in getting in touch with various partners, including development agencies, to garner support for humanitarian and recovery. She spoke candidly about the current "crisis within crisis" - how both COVID-19 and typhoon Odette deeply impacted the Dinagat province. She also outlined her vision and strategy to respond to these challenges. She did not shy away from talking about the importance of paying attention and putting in place mechanisms to address gender-based violence. It was refreshing to see her courage, commitment, and resilience as a leader during this trying time. In response, UNDP will be supporting the Dinagat province with livelihood and the rebuilding of resilient housing. 

A hundred days have gone by since Typhoon Odette swept the country in mid-December 2021. It severely affected close to 12 million people and over 2 million houses were damaged or destroyed, leaving over tens of thousands of people displaced.

Aside from livelihood, relocation of families from the danger zones was identified as a crucial part for recovery and resilience. This is a common case for Dinagat Islands, Siargao, and even Palawan Province. In several coastal villages, houses were built within danger zones, occupying areas within the 20-meter easement zone. In other areas, structures were located in landslide prone areas. The relocation of communities to safer sites, alongside the construction of a more resilient shelter that can withstand strong typhoons, are being explored to address these issues.

Three-term barangay chairperson Reny Porpayas of Jubang, Dapa in Siargao Islands has her community’s support to negotiate with the government to not relocate her people because their livelihood is dependent on the sea.

In one of the coastal communities in Siargao Islands, Reny Porpayas, 67, is serving her last term as the barangay chairperson of Jubang in the municipality of Dapa. The entire barangay is also in a “no-build-zone” area identified by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). Since Reny assumed public office in 2013, the issues of relocation have been talked about among community members from time to time, but it was not explicitly given urgency until Typhoon Odette.

Being a community leader, Reny’s priority is the welfare of her communities. Now, Reny’s priority for her community is to recover from the impacts of the typhoon by repairing the damaged bancas so that fishers can venture out to the sea and sell fish again, while reconstructing the damaged houses that will provide, at least, temporary relief to affected families. Relocating to higher grounds means residing farther from their livelihood. The 360 households in her community are heavily relying on fishing as their main source of income.

Makeshift houses in Barangay Jubang, Dapa, Siargao Islands were still being battered by heavy rains almost three months after the Typhoon Odette. The community is within the no-build-zone because of its danger to storm surges.

Relocation is a complex issue for a community leader like Reny, who empathizes with her people as they might lose their source of income if they relocate to farther areas. However, she also recognizes the future danger if they continue to live along the shore. Reny said that the storm surges that hit their community during Typhoon Odette were as high as six meters. When asked what she would do if another typhoon as strong as Odette hits the province, she said that a seawall might be an option or a compromise between the community and the government. It can be built along their coastal area to serve as a buffer against strong waves that could potentially damage the houses and claim lives.

Vilma Tesado was trying to retrieve pieces of glass windows that can still be used to reconstruct their home that was totally damaged by Typhoon Odette.

In another island community in Siargao, the storm surge was reported to have reached as high as seven meters during the Typhoon Odette. Vilma Tesado, 56, is one of the barangay councilors in Caub, an island barangay in the municipality of del Carmen.

“I was assisting the children and elderly before the typhoon hit us on December 16. I left my family in our house because I was confident that they could take care of themselves. Being a barangay official, I have a duty to fulfill. When we secure the children and elderly in safe evacuation area, I went back to our home and that’s when a fallen wood hit my head,” said Vilma.

The seawall that was supposedly protecting the community had collapsed and was totally wiped out by strong waves and wind. Merely a few meters from the seawall was Vilma’s house. When she saw that her house would not be able to withstand the typhoon, she decided to bring her family to the evacuation center. Unfortunately, her husband was among those who were injured in the midst of the typhoon. Three months after, her husband’s injury has gotten worse due to his diabetic condition.

“I was able to keep other people safe during the typhoon, but I could not help my husband. I could not bring him in big hospitals now because we don’t have enough money. My family and I tried to start selling cooked meals again but very few tourists are coming over to visit the lagoon,” said Vilma.

The once lush green Sugba Lagoon was not spared from the wrath of Typhoon Odette. This tourist area is one of the most popular recreational sites in the entire Siargao Islands. Before pandemic, over 1,200 people visit the place daily.

Tourism is one of the main economic drivers of the municipalities in Siargao, aside from agriculture. This region is known for its pristine waters and surfing areas. The famous Sugba Lagoon can be found in Barangay Caub, Del Carmen. The communities relied heavily on the influx of tourists prior to pandemic. As the local economy gradually reopened in the last quarter of 2021, unfortunately, Typhoon Odette struck.

According to Mayor Baby Coro of del Carmen, the communities did not expect the magnitude and severity of the impact of the Typhoon Odette. She grew up and raised her own family in Siargao, and it was the first time she could recall a typhoon that caused such devastation in the islands. In their records, 80% of the coconut trees in Del Carmen was uprooted. Many fishing boats were destroyed. She personally went to each barangay right after the typhoon, following a backhoe that was clearing the debris on the roads. It took them 10 hours before they reached the last barangay and the boundary of the next municipality.

The barangay outpost of Caub stands above the rubbles of the seawall that collapsed during the typhoon.

Being a first-term Mayor, it was a daunting task ahead to plan and implement a long-term recovery strategy for the people.

She pointed out that part of being a good leader is to acknowledge that you need help to provide timely and urgent services to those affected. UNDP will be providing livelihood support to affected fisherfolks in the area.

Mayor Baby Coro of del Carmen Siargao Islands is working with the national government agencies to find an alternative and safer site to relocate people living in the danger zones.

In some areas of del Carmen, the issue of encroachment of coastal areas poses a challenge in the development and implementation of more resilient shelters for the communities, especially in the island barangays. Since a big part del Carmen is part of the Siargao Islands Protected Landscape and Seascape, the building of structures in certain zones that can damage the protected habitats is prohibited.

Mayor Baby is still in negotiation with the national government to find a suitable relocation site that will still allow her people to continue their livelihood and, at the same time, offer a safer place to live for the families.

“Women leaders are good at negotiation. We know how to compromise, but, still, retain and push the best interest of our people,” she said.

In Palawan, the best interest of indigenous peoples (IP) has always been the core value of the Puerto Princesa Underground River Protected Area Superintendent (PASu) Elizabeth Maclang or popularly known as PASu Beth. She has been serving as PASu of the famous UNESCO World Heritage Site for at least a decade now. UNDP supported PASu through GEF Small Grants Programme 5. When Typhoon Odette made landfall in Palawan, the northwestern part of the Puerto Princesa City bore the brunt.

“We have barely recovered from the impacts of pandemic last December. The indigenous community partners in Sabang area had just started to rebuild facilities and services that they could offer to arriving domestic tourists. But then, Odette pushed us back to zero. Out of the 86 boats of our sea ferry association, only two were spared,” PASu Beth shared.

The day after the typhoon, she led her team to organize a quick assessment of the area. Some of the roads were not passable due to fallen trees. Her team led the debris clearing on the way to Sabang until they were able to hear from the Ips. After the debris clearing, they organized a local resource mobilization and relief aid to the most affected communities in Sabang. Still, debris clearing is a pressing challenge for the communities, especially those that are in far-flung areas with no easy road access. To assist, UNDP is extending its debris management expertise to the Palawan province.

PASu Beth shared that many of their partner communities are IP women-led – from fish vendors to farmers to tour guides and leaders. Helping the IP communities is a crucial part to revive the tourism circuit from the impacts of pandemic and Typhoon Odette not just in Sabang but in the entire Puerto Princesa City.

The Puerto Princesa Underground River has recently opened its doors to local and foreign tourists. The Sabang community is hopeful that the tourism will kick-off eventually so they can also get their jobs back.

In the Philippines, it remains a challenge to find sex disaggregated information that provide more insights about the needs of women and girls post-disaster. With inadequate data and analysis, valuable information on gender roles of women and men necessary for targeted recovery and resilience-building may be lacking. This calls for a more robust and inclusive data science application that can provide more insights for better policies and interventions.

Women’s roles are often overlooked in disaster risk reduction and recovery. Often, they are considered and looked at as victims, rather than vital actors in times of crises. In fact, they are first responders at the household level in all kinds of calamity and disasters; they play a significant role in building disaster resilience as they are able to harness different means and methods available around them. Women's leadership in local governance, community-based organizations and non-government organizations significantly contribute to developing resilient communities. Building women’s knowledge and skills and including them in disaster risk reduction and resilience-building will yield more effective initiatives.

The Women’s Livelihood Center in del Carmen was able to salvage a sewing machine when Typhoon Odette struck. UNDP Philippines will provide more units sewing machine as a replacement for the damaged ones.

While women are effective drivers of crises response, a gender inclusive approach to recovery and resilience should not focus solely on women empowerment. In fact, disaster recovery should be an opportunity to break down the constraints that women face during disasters. Among these barriers are traditional norms like male domination in important spaces, such as ownership of livelihood assets, and equal access to education. It should be a turn-around point to leverage on women’s more active involvement in the areas of shelter rehabilitation, nature conservation, protection and law enforcement – all of which are previously considered to be traditionally dominated by men.

The recovery efforts of UNDP Philippines put emphasis in the proactive engagement of women in building resilience by providing direct assistance in terms of alternative livelihood as well as ensuring representation of women in dialogues and skill building.

While women have deeper considerations of their vulnerabilities, they also know better their capacities as important members of the community. In UNDP’s work, we recognize that the underrepresentation of women in risk reduction and recovery cause lost opportunities in rebuilding a more resilient community. Hence, we always ensure that women are represented beyond the numbers in situation reports. We make sure that their stories are learned and told.