Philippines: Recovering from Typhoon Haiyan

21 Nov, 2013    ·   4186

Aparupa Bhattacherjee comments on the preparedness of the Filipino disaster management authorities

Aparupa Bhattacherjee
Aparupa Bhattacherjee
Research Officer

On 7 November 2013, Philippines witnessed one of the biggest natural calamities caused due to the passage of Typhoon Haiyan (locally known as Yolanda). At least 10,000 people were killed when the typhoon passed through the country. The coastal provinces of Leyte and Samar are reportedly the worst affected areas in the archipelago. The government has declared a ‘state of national calamity’, and mobilised thousands of troops to enable the recovery effort. Despite the initiation of relief and recovery operations, several people are reportedly still without basic amenities, including proper shelter, clean water, food and medicines, which have resulted in bouts of localised protests. However, one should note that prior to Haiyan’s landfall, proper disaster mitigation precautions such as weather updates by the Philippines Atmospheric, Geophysical, and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA), as well as evacuation plans had been implemented by the government.

The larger issue is that of disaster management.  What caused such widespread damage in spite of the precautionary measures taken by the authorities? Can anyone be blamed for the massive destruction? Why is the recovery process slow?

Hurdles in the Path of Relief
Even after a week following the calamity, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) was not able to provide an accurate number of casualties. In response, the international community consisting of several countries and humanitarian organisations extended their support. However, the main challenge continued to be the allocation of relief aid to the affected people. Extensive damage to roads and communication networks delayed prompt response from relief workers.

Furthermore, heavy rainfall and widespread power outage across provinces exacerbated difficulties during rescue missions. Additionally, deterioration in the security environment was reported in the worst affected areas, particularly Tacloban City, where a night time curfew was imposed. Most crimes reported were attributed to looters - some of them armed - looking for subsistence materials. Some groups, attempting to ambush vehicles, were operating along highways that were being used to transport relief materials. The government deployed special forces personnel and armoured vehicles along the accessible paths of Leyte and Samar. The situation was tense and the security forces were unable to adequately maintain law and order in some areas. Moreover, there was a rising fear regarding an outbreak of an epidemic if the rescue work did not proceed swiftly.

Who should be Blamed?
Typhoon Haiyan, which is reportedly the strongest recorded tropical cyclone in the world, made its first landfall in Guiyan on Samar Island, followed by six other landfalls on other central islands. Considering the intensity of the typhoon, damage was inevitable even if the best of precautions were undertaken. However, the unprecedented loss of lives and destruction could have been avoided to some extent if more necessary measures had been implemented by the government and subsequently followed by the civilians. Philippines annually faces approximately twenty tropical storms, followed by other natural hazards. Thus, it is expected to be more prepared in dealing with such natural calamities. Unfortunately, the disaster management situation in the country is very poor. A majority of the houses in Philippines are modestly constructed which are incapable of sustaining any storm of massive intensity. Although many people were evacuated to storm-proof shelters, some of these succumbed to the strong winds. Moreover the government should have been prepared with essential commodities such as food, water and medicines, considering the prior weather-related warnings by PAGASA.

On the other hand, it is unwise to blame the government completely. Despite repeated warnings and orders for mandatory evacuation, many civilians in several islands refused to leave their property in order to safeguard them. For instance in Coron, which is a popular tourist destination in Palawan province, residents refused to follow the recommended steps as the city had never been affected by a typhoon. Another aspect that can be attributed for the widespread damage is the geographic location of the country. Most of the central Filipino towns were recovering from an earthquake that had struck the region a couple of weeks prior to the typhoon. In September 2013, Typhoon Usagi passed over Philippines, severely affecting life and property. Several critics have cited the examples of the evacuation processes that were implemented in Vietnam during the passage of Haiyan, and in India during Cyclone Phailin. However, one should also be reminded that both these countries are not archipelagos, and unlike Philippines, are blessed with suitable geographic landscapes which can be utilised to shift people during such natural disasters.
However, the above points cannot excuse the government for being unable to ensure a better disaster management system, which is extremely essential for Philippines. As of now, the situation demands swift action by the Filipino authorities.