Rebuilding Differently for Resilience in the Philippines

By Ms. Kanni Wignaraja and Mr. Selva Ramachandran

October 20, 2022
Jonathan Hodder/UNDP


For Filipinos, the last months of the year spur preparations for the year-end holiday festivities, but they also come with a premonition of devastating tropical cyclones that frequent the region during this season. In the past, they were few. However, the past decade has been unrelenting - dotted with a list of typhoon names, each recalling memories of destruction, of livelihoods disrupted, of lives lost.   

The Philippines is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate-related disasters. Each year this archipelagic country experiences an average of 21 tropical cyclones with varying degrees of strength.  Last year, the country was struck by Typhoon Odette, a Category 5 super typhoon that left 7 provinces in ruin. Odette was the 15th to hit the Philippines in 2021 and by far the strongest. It affected more than 8 million Filipinos and left hundreds of thousands of people displaced without shelter, access to food, clean water, and connectivity.   

A year prior, 26 provinces in northern Philippines suffered the brunt of two major typhoons—Rolly and Ulysses. These two typhoons, which swept across Luzon one-after-the other, upended the lives of 2 million Filipinos.  And deeply etched in the memory of Filipinos is Super Typhoon Yolanda, which laid waste to the whole Visayas region, in 2013. It was one of the most powerful typhoons ever recorded. Yolanda’s fury affected more than 14 million people across 44 provinces, taking the lives of more than 6,000 people with 1,800 more missing.   

The cost of disasters to this country is a massive burden on peoples’ security and well-being, and on national, local and household budgets. It tears through the social contract between leadership, state institutions and people. Local governments and communities bear the heaviest brunt, repeatedly hitting hardest at the poor and most vulnerable.  

According to the Department of Finance (DOF), climate-related disasters have caused USD 10 billion in losses and damage, over the past decade. Located in the typhoon belt and the Pacific Ring of Fire, the Philippines regularly incurs loss and damages amounting to 0.5 percent of its annual GDP due to extreme weather events and climate-related disasters. This is despite the country contributing only 0.3 percent of the world’s total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.   

According to the World Bank, climate change will push around 132 million people into extreme poverty over the next 10 years, unraveling a decade of hard-won development gains. This means more farmers will lose more of their yields; fishing catches will dwindle as fish stocks decline; more families will be swept into informal shelters due to the direct damages to housing and infrastructure. And these often become their state of permanent impermanence. 

The 2022 Human Development Report by UNDP highlights how layers of uncertainty are stacking up and interacting to unsettle life in unprecedented ways. The disproportionate impacts of these protracted global crises, with a still ongoing pandemic, are causing an increase in poverty, inequality, and are damaging long-term economic growth prospects.   

Against the backdrop of uncertainty and insecurity, these catastrophic typhoons underscore the imperative of a robust disaster response and sustainable recovery, in the Philippines, for its future of development. While typhoons, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions among other natural hazards are inevitable, the high death toll and huge economic impact can be mitigated.   

What would it take for rebuilding efforts to ensure greater resilience in the face of these repeated threats? The Philippines has made significant progress in the areas of disaster risk reduction and climate action, and now looks to strengthen resilience in response and outcome. This means the consideration of systemic risks and the need for deeply transformative measures that involves all stakeholders. This means sustained efforts and investments in building the capacities of national and regional governments across sectors to work together on more joined-up solutions. This means communities being directly involved from the get-go, on how best to build-back that has people assured that their ideas and feedback has been taken into account. This means spending much more on prevention, anticipating the risks well ahead and planning for them ahead of a post-disaster recovery. 

Risk-informed planning and development leverages the use of real-time data and fast evolving digital, mobile and satellite technologies that must link to provide accurate information, early warning, and risk-informed protocols and regulations. These include decisions on location of settlements, industries, city centers; spatial development and safety protocols for buildings, for cities; and sustainability measures for infrastructure that limits damage. This is rebuilding for resilience that saves billions of dollars in losses and saves lives and livelihoods. 

A final word on financing – it is a collective responsibility to ensure that the money follows this high value proposition of investing in a more sustainable recovery, in resilience. Public and private capital can be blended and channeled in these directions, reducing the cost of financing and leveraging more by working together to a common end.  

These changes must come soon, as time is of the essence. Every moment of inaction, or worse still harmful action, drives the unbearable costs and losses to a point of no return.  [E]


Ms. Kanni Wignaraja is the United Nations (UN) Assistant Secretary-General and UN Development Programme (UNDP) Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific.

Mr. Selva Ramachandran is the UNDP Philippines Resident Representative.