The Numbers Are Breathing: The Case of Recovery and Long-Term Resilience in Bicol

By Renz Homer Cerillo, Project Officer, Recovery and Resilience-building, Climate Action Programme Team

Posted July 27, 2021

The most powerful typhoon that hit the Philippines in 2020, Super Typhoon Goni has brought strong winds and massive inundation in the Bicol region that destroyed infrastructures and displaced communities Photo Credit: Camille Soriano, UNDP

New research by the World Bank estimates that climate change will push 132 million people into extreme poverty. This means more farmers will lose their livelihood due to drought, water scarcity, and flooding. Fisherfolks would go home with a smaller catch as a result of unpredictable weather and depleting fish stocks. More families than ever will be swept to informality due to hospitalization from COVID-19, on top of diseases and health risks aggravated by the deteriorating environment. It is hard to conceive what 132 million means, but for the global south, it presents a hard, bleak reality. Disasters do not discriminate but they ripple strongest among the poor.

As a proverbial example, the Philippines has all the ingredients for disasters to brew: geographical location, weakened social services, and aging infrastructures. Within the background of chronic poverty and global warming, we have the recipe for a perfect storm. Between October 11th and November 11th, 2020, alone, eight consecutive typhoons entered the archipelago’s area of responsibility, bringing the Bicol Region down to its knees.

In the aftermath of Super Typhoon Goni – one of the freakish weather events ever recorded in the Philippines – many Bicolanos incurred grave losses to their livelihood, particularly smallholder farmers, fisherfolks, small business owners, and informal workers. With limited support provided, the effects on women and persons with disabilities (PWDs) were particularly debilitating. Just when they were recuperating from the devastation of Typhoon Molave, which alone displaced 100,000 individuals in October, they had to brave another catastrophe, whether they were ready for it or not.

Working in the frontlines, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has responded to the call of the national government, the Provincial Government of Albay and the affected local government units (LGU) to support the immediate needs of highly impacted communities in Bicol. The Super Typhoon Rolly/Goni Resilience Livelihood Restoration and Recovery Project for Albay is a project which recognizes the short-term needs of target stakeholders but also accounts for their future circumstances. Strengthening local institutions and the capacities and economic resilience of communities, in the long run, is therefore fundamental for us to cushion the blow of worsening disasters and attain sustainable development for all. Aiming for “safer, adaptive, and resilient communities through sustainable and resilient local economies and environment,” the Project hopes that history will and should not repeat itself.

But how does long-term economic resilience look like in practice? Thrown like some special ribbon, “resilience” has found its place in the vernacular of the development sector. Amidst the ruins left by Molave and Goni, how can our equals from Bicol see it in the flesh? Is it possible to breathe life to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)? How can Bicolanos live productive and meaningful lives once again? This Project has shown us a glimpse into these questions.

The most powerful typhoon that hit the Philippines in 2020, Super Typhoon Goni has brought strong winds and massive inundation in the Bicol region that damaged infrastructure and displaced communities Photo Credit: Camille Soriano, UNDP

Reviving the Local Economy

*The Project’s Post-Disaster Needs Assessment surfaced that rehabilitating the livelihood of marginalized stakeholders and local sectors is a strong entry point to regenerate the local economy, for which UNDP has mobilized funds. With the Bicol Consortium for Development Initiative (BCDI) as the delivery partner, the Project is supporting the hardest hit households to rehabilitate their livelihoods. The support covered 460 families including severely affected rice and vegetable farmers, fishers, weavers, micro-entrepreneurs such as vendors and food processors, and several PWDs.

These are families whose homes were swept away, properties left to rubble, and dreams crushed by the sight of the wreckage. But through a combination of product or in-kind and financial assistance, communities were provided with the resources they need to be back on their feet.

*For sectors such as farming and fishing, in-kind support was more ideal to replace or augment lost and damaged equipment, tools, and inputs such as seeds and agricultural supplies for farmers, and nets and kits for fisherfolks. This intervention does not immediately translate into high returns, but it can significantly support self-sustenance, helping provide warm meals on families’ tables. The extra produce grown, and fish caught can also be sold in the market, providing income for households.

On the flipside, providing direct cash assistance to enlisted households gives them a sense of autonomy and determination as to how they can spend the money to grow their enterprises. This fosters accountability and promotes the effective use of financing within their means.

UNDP and BCDI handing over in-kind assistance to affected fisherfolks in Bicol Photo Credit: Charlene Erica Balaan, UNDP

At the end of the day, the support must be channeled directly to individuals and households to reduce the need for decisions, cut bureaucracy, and expedite recovery. SDG 1 aims to end poverty in all its forms and bring health services, education, and water and sanitation to the world’s 10% currently living in absolute destitution. Within the Project’s boundaries, this development goal manifests in the provision of either cash assistance or farming and fishing supplies, signaling a profound effect on families and communities, and empowering them to go about their business as usual and put them back on track. This helps build resilience at the levels of the individuals and the communities that they are part of. In disaster-stricken communities such as Albay, time is a luxury, and we cannot afford to delay the flow of resources. Delaying support prolongs risks and that is not a game we should play.

De-risking the Future

The future will always bear uncertainties. But this Project has proven ways to mitigate them and safeguard our beneficiaries in a lasting way. First is through the *creation of multiple income streams within the same sectors. Due to the susceptibility of the provinces of Albay and Catanduanes to major typhoons and other disasters, their strong dependence on the agricultural and fisheries section is at great risk. Diversifying possible sources of income within these industries does not only result in better economic outcomes but also protects communities from financial fluxes today and in the future. Therefore, putting their eggs in different baskets protects them from uncertainties.

*For farmers, varying their crops, enhancing management, and providing crop insurance could disperse risks against both slow and fast-onset climate events. Planting different crops such as quick-growing cash crops and vegetables can serve short and medium food demands, while high-value crops and fruits can support longer-term needs. Another key advantage is that this practice protects soil health, supports local biodiversity, and safeguards the overall environmental integrity of the communities. Expanding environmental assets such as fruit-bearing trees and the application of multi-cropping does not only make good sense but is also key to ecological resilience. With the effects of climate change more profound than ever and are only expected to worsen, SDG 13 advocates that an arsenal of solutions – big and small – can make a difference.

For fishing communities, capacitating them in various fish preservation and food processing techniques does not only reduce waste but also increases their catch’s market value, hence, additional income.

The Project has also pointed to *alternative livelihoods and skills expansion to support the partner communities in developing resilience. There are identified opportunities for members of the community to explore alternative skills in appliance repairing and construction. And for households with family members that have graduated from tertiary education, the project recommends that some form of financial support be provided. It has been identified that qualified graduates, due to financial barriers, could not comply with pre-employment requirements. This is a low-hanging fruit that the project recognizes and should be picked to help catalyze change among these families.

Partnering for Development and Resilience

In typhoon-torn Bicol, the Project forged links between BCDI and the Socio-Economic Development Program Multi-Purpose Cooperative (SEDP MPC) for the delivery of financial literacy and business training among qualifying beneficiaries. This would enhance the entrepreneurial skills of the recipient micro-entrepreneurs, allowing them to streamline and grow their business and make the most out of the handed capital. Meanwhile, BCDI has engaged with the Department of Agriculture (DA) to request rice seeds and other agricultural inputs, and to DA PhilRice, East West Seeds, and local agricultural offices for resource and training on vegetable production and rice farming for the farmers.

The Project has also looked into engaging the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority in profiling who among the 460 beneficiaries are keen to develop new skills or currently learning new ones to improve their employment opportunities.

Meanwhile, the Project has also surfaced an opportunity to engage the Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Office to partner with BCDI and SEPD for women’s groups to be employed in ecosystem services, with even further cooperation with the local tourism office for eco-tourism projects such as community nurseries.

The Albay Provincial Agricultural Office and DA are also opening their doors for several women farmers residing in Barangay Matalipni in the Municipality of Malinao to engage in organic farming. With conventional farming as the standard practice in these localities, engaging these women in organic farming can provide better economic outcomes, without compromising the ecological integrity of their lands. 

Complex problems cannot be addressed by individuals or households alone. Strong cooperation between and among institutions is critical to advance long-term, inclusive, and resilient growth – and this is the spirit of SDG 17. It requires harnessing the resources and mandates of national and regional governments, and the frontline position and reach of LGUs and civil society groups. Now, more than ever, do we need cooperation to ensure that Bicol, among other disaster-afflicted communities, can build back better and march on towards the SDGs.

Albay Public Safety and Emergency Management Office Chief Cedric Daep discussing Albay’s evolution of disaster risk reduction strategies with UNDP Resident Representative Selva Ramachandran, agreeing to strengthen resiliency building initiatives in the province in the aftermath of Super Typhoon Goni. Photo Credit: Napoleon Manegdeg, UNDP

UNDP Resident Representative Selva Ramachandran with Albay Governor Francis Bichara on 21 November 2020 after discussing areas of cooperation to rehabilitate economic livelihood in the province Photo Credit: Napoleon Manegdeg, UNDP

This Project demonstrates that despite COVID-19 getting in the way, and the compounded challenges of poverty and climate change, immediate recovery can also lay the groundwork for the communities’ sustainable development. In short: recovery from disasters can and should advance long-term resilience. By informing efforts by the worsening threats of climate change and social injustice both from the foreseeable future and the long-term horizon, we have better chances to withstand what is to come. This new brand of resilience requires addressing the nuanced needs of marginalized stakeholders, taking them with us every step of the way, and empowering individuals to reach their aspirations.

It is unthinkable that despite humanity’s recent economic gains, knowledge, and innovations, 132 million of us are on the brink of living a life devoid of dignity, security, and stability. And we should drill into our consciousness that this number is not just any number. Each digit represents a life. Leaving no one behind is a key principle that the United Nations stands for and is the moral compass that guides our work. But faced with a pandemic, a warming planet, and crippling social inequities, would it be absurd to envision a family that is safe and sound against the forces of nature, whose stable income provides warm meals on the table, and where a sense of purpose and belonging is within reach? When we think about it, SDGs 1, 13, and 17 are just arbitrary numbers – socially constructed by us who promised a better world for all. But these figures mean something else and behind them are people whose dreams remain alive.

*Note: The recommendations listed in this blog are informed by the Recommendation Report entitled “Livelihood Activities, Strategies, and Interventions in Building Long-Term Resilience” developed by the UNDP RR PIP’s Disaster and Early Recovery Specialist