Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday broadsheet newspaper on 1 December 2013
I felt a sense of Déjà vu as I spent the past week in the Philippines witnessing how the archipelago nation is struggling with the trail of destruction left by super typhoon Haiyan (local name: Yolanda). The aftermath is uncannily similar to what we in Sri Lanka went through following the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004.
The atmospheric disturbance that hit them on 8 November 2013, which was accompanied by tsunami-type sea waves, is their deadliest natural disaster on record. By November 25, the official death toll exceeded 5,600 with another 1,700 missing. Nearly 26,000 people were injured, and over a million homes destroyed or damaged.
In all, more than 11 million Filipinos have been affected in one way or another. The total economic cost, still being assessed, is likely to exceed 1 billion US Dollars and the recovery cost, thrice as much.
As the initial shock and grief fade, the country is coming to terms with the harsh realities. There is considerable chaos and confusion on relief aid distribution, some of it inevitable given the scale of disruption.
Accusations of blame, incompetence and corruption are flying around. Meanwhile, political rivalries and inter-agency turf battles are resuming after a brief respite. There is much bickering between central and local governments. Foreign governments and UN agencies are jostling with each other to be seen helping.
Amidst all this, there are stories of extraordinary heroism, charity and spontaneous collaboration. Deeply moved by the calamity, the Filipino diaspora and many overseas well wishers are donating money and volunteering with time and skills. New communications technologies and social media are being deployed to better track, coordinate and monitor thousands of scattered relief and recovery efforts.
As we saw in the weeks after the tsunami, times like these bring out the best — and worst — in a society. It also provides opportunities to correct past mistakes in planning and building.
Haiyan was one of the strongest tropical storms ever recorded, both for its peak intensity and longevity. Even in a country like the Philippines, regularly visited by such phenomena (this was their 25th typhoon this year), disaster managers in many affected areas were overwhelmed.
As it swept across the central Philippines, Haiyan’s winds – which went up to 315 kph (195 mph) — tore away roofs, flattened houses, uprooted trees and destroyed public and private property.
In Tacloban, capital of Leyte province 580 km south of Manila, it damaged over 90% of all structures. A Lankan-born documentary filmmaker, whom I met just after she had been there filming the relief effort, described the devastation as almost unimaginable.
What made the typhoon’s impact deadlier was the storm surge of seven metres high (about 23 feet) that also arrived around the same time. This uncommon combination battered the rain-drenched and windswept coasts with the power of a tsunami.
Most people in the Philippines, accustomed as they are to typhoons, had never heard of storm surges – and, it turned out, didn’t realize its destructive power. To complicate matters, the Philippine state weather forecasting agency (PAGASA) kept using that term: storm surge is technically correct to describe giant waves caused by changes in atmospheric pressure and high winds during tropical storms (whereas a tsunami is triggered by certain undersea quakes).
“Perhaps we should have said ‘tsunami.’ At least people would have been more aware of the danger,” Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II later admitted.
Thus, many were prepared for strong winds, but not for torrents of sea water. Therein hangs a costly lesson in communicating hazard warnings to the public.
Partly because they didn’t know what a storm surge was, and also due to their unwillingness (indicating a lack of trust in law and order?) to leave their homes unguarded, many of Tacloban’s 220,000 people didn’t evacuate. While city officials repeatedly asked people to do so, and arranged temporary shelters in public buildings, they didn’t forcibly move people from their homes.
Some international commentators felt that the Philippines, no stranger to natural disasters, was under-prepared for Haiyan’s fury.
The Wall Street Journal, 26 Nov 2013: Typhoon Haiyan: How a Catastrophe Unfolded
Thomson Reuters, 13 Nov 2013: Monster typhoon exposes an ill-prepared Philippines
Warnings saved lives
At least they were not caught by surprise. Unlike tsunamis, which come with a very tight window for issuing warnings and evacuation, Haiyan’s build up over the Pacific Ocean was known for four days and nights as weather satellites monitored it from November 3 onwards. Some community leaders took advantage of that notice.
When the magnitude of the oncoming typhoon became clear, the authorities broadcast warnings on television, mobile phone networks and over social media. In total, over 750,000 to 800,000 people across the central Philippines were evacuated.
Although the process was imperfect, early warnings did save many lives. For example, prompt evacuation from the tiny island of Tulang Diyot meant no one was killed among its 1,000 residents; when Haiyan hit, all their houses were destroyed.
Alfredo Arquillano, the former Mayor of San Francisco, in the Cebu Province, was quoted as saying how years of work to strengthen community preparedness and reduce disaster risk prevented a catastrophe.
“The day before, when it was clear how bad the typhoon would be, we decided to evacuate all people. Because we’ve done so much work on disaster risks, everyone fully understood the need to move to safety,” he said. “It just shows that preparedness pays. We have been working for years on early warnings, evacuations.”
But as the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) pointed out after Haiyan, such preparations now need to be reviewed as disasters are becoming more frequent and more intense. This is widely attributed to climate change.
Jerry Velasquez, UNISDR’s Asia Regional Coordinator, told Australia’s ABC network: “What we’re seeing is that the hazards, the typhoons, are getting stronger. The once-in-a-lifetime typhoons are now happening once a year. So the question for us is, is this the new normal? And if this is, then what should we do to prepare?”
By coincidence, Haiyan happened in the same week the year’s UN climate change conference (COPY19) started in Warsaw, Poland. There, the Philippines government connected the super typhoon with climate change, and urged fellow governments to take emergency action.
“We cannot sit and stay helpless staring at this international climate stalemate. It is now time to take action. We need an emergency climate pathway,” said Yeb Saño, head of the Philippines delegation whose family comes from Tacloban. He dared climate change denialists to ‘pay a visit to the Philippines right now’.
Typhoon Haiyan: we cannot afford to procrastinate on climate action, by Naderev (Yeb) Saño, The Guardian, 11 Nov 2013
In the end, the annual climate talks didn’t make much progress even after two weeks. This leaves vulnerable countries to adopt their own strategies to cope with the inevitable – and often unpredictable – climate impacts.
Good governance critical
As the Philippines rebuilds after Haiyan, two key challenges are restoring disrupted livelihoods (most affected people are farmers or fishermen) and rebuilding more resilient cities and villages.
Blanket policies and hasty regulations can prove impracticable. For example, within days of Haiyan, President Benigno Aquino III ordered the Environment Department to enforce ‘no-build zones’ on coastlines.
This is easier said than done in a country with one of the world’s longest shorelines totaling over 36,200 km! Soon after the 2004 tsunami, Sri Lanka too introduced a coastal no-build (buffer) zone of 200 metres in the North and East, and 100 metres elsewhere. But it was withdrawn shortly afterwards. And we have only 2,825 km of coastline!
Some of Philippines’ 7,100 islands are small and so low-lying that living on them would no longer be safe. With a population approaching 100 million and a density of around 310 persons per square km, relocating is not easy or simple. Solutions will need to be location specific and best worked out in consultation with local communities.
The Philippines is already a regional leader in disaster risk reduction and participatory governance. In over a quarter century of democracy since the dictator Marcos fled, the country has devolved many governance responsibilities to local government units (LGUs). Mayors and other city officials play a dominant role in the country’s civic life.
But some anomalies remain. As Florencio Fianza, a columnist in the Manila Standard Today, noted: “The emergency management system that we currently have is a product of martial law. At that time, a lot of authority went to the military and this included disaster management. Currently, however, the LGUs are the first responders and work horses during calamities.”
Despite this, the national disaster agency NDRRMC is still under the Department of Defense. Tensions between the centre and provinces can hamper emergency responses.
Focus must now shift to improved governance at both national and local levels. By not paying enough attention to this vital aspect after the 2004 tsunami, Sri Lanka squandered many opportunities and resources.
As I noted on the tsunami’s fifth anniversary in 2009: “The tsunami and aftermath underlined the crucial role of good governance in coping with disasters and other humanitarian emergencies. Mega bucks, massive infrastructure and high tech systems alone cannot ensure public safety or create resilience: good governance is the vital ‘lubricant’ that makes everything work well. Without it, we risk slipping back into business as usual, continuing our apathy, greed and short-termism.”
The Philippines and other developing nations can still learn from our mistakes.