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Reflections on Haiyan: one year on

By Raoul Bermejo
on November 14, 2014

A year after the strongest storm ever recorded to make landfall barreled through populated Visayan Islands in central Philippines, various humanitarian and aid agencies, local and international news organizations have all weighed in on the progress (or lack of progress) of reconstruction efforts. Many lament that very few families have  received permanent housing and that far too many still live in tents one year on, while the Asian Development Bank had an overall assessment noting that the pace of reconstruction has been faster compared to the Aceh tsunami. A comprehensive update from the government is available  here.

I took some time off to process my own experience supporting the work  on Haiyan during the various phases of the disaster and offer reflections touching on some of the broader issues –appropriate humanitarian work, resilient communities and health systems, and  climate negotiations and justice implications of the increased likelihood of extreme weather events.


Appropriate humanitarian work

While humanitarian agencies take stock of their achievements, I think it is just as crucial for them to reflect on the appropriateness of their work and look into potential negative impacts of their presence and activities. This is hard to do especially when many have overflowing good intentions. But we have to recognize that even good intentions have unintended effects.

Are we helping? Or creating a culture of dependence? Is what we are bringing in relevant?  -are important questions to reflect on.  There are reports for example noting that some families continue to live (for the day) in tents to get a first strike at any aid coming in. Though there was a sincere effort to make the cluster coordination mechanism to work, the concentration of the humanitarian footprint in a few places and the neglect of many other areas is an indication that coordination was a serious challenge. And then you have “emergency cowboys” who ran around on their own, feeling the need to coordinate only when it is convenient for them or when they need something from other partners. One of them, an expat medic NGO worker (for whom there are no borders) even had the audacity to volunteer during one of the coordination meetings to lecture on how the local health system works!  For weeks following the disaster, surgical and trauma teams continued to arrive and were still being deployed while there was an obvious lack of mental and psychosocial support services around. Call it “reigning in emergency cowboys” but I think  it is time for the “no regrets policy” to be balanced-out with the  do-no-harm principle and a good dose of respect for local capacities.

A year on, Tacloban and the surrounding areas  are still crawling with humanitarian and aid workers; many are expatriates. The need to continue supporting and complementing the work of national and local government agencies is there. But is it necessary that this is done by expatriates? In a country like the Philippines, where the capacity is quite high, I think the sooner these support tasks are shifted to nationals, the better.

The World Humanitarian Summit  in Istanbul in 2016 and the consultations leading up to it provide an opportunity to rethink humanitarian work.


Resilient communities and health systems

In an era of increasing extreme weather events and pandemics, resilience is apparently a new buzzword in development circles and also in health systems strengthening. The reverse of vulnerability, resilience is the capacity to absorb shocks, mount an appropriate response to a disaster, adjust to a ‘new normal’ after a major disruptive event. But how do we build resilient communities and resilient health systems?

I noticed in going around the major areas affected by the typhoon that rural communities seem to have go back to normal faster than more urban communities. It may be that their baseline living standard was much lower and therefore they could restore their normal lives faster. But I also think that stronger ties &  social support networks and a lifestyle that is more attuned to nature have something to do with the apparent resilience of rural communities. The chaos and the helplessness in affected urban areas were partly driven by the lack of access to traditional sources of water (many were reliant on the tap), no opportunity to forage for food from an “edible landscape” (cities tend to have decorative plants and foliage rather than fruit trees and vegetable gardens)  or to fish (hence some people resorted to looting warehouses out of desperation)  and lack of carpentry skills (hence many were waiting for carpenters to become available).

In thinking about resilient health systems, it is important not only to make sure that structures are resilient to various disaster scenarios but that networks of emergency responders are developed so that affected areas are supported by less affected neighbors. Twinning communities within regions and among regions in an expansive archipelago like the Philippines should be explored and systematized. In the aftermath of Haiyan, health emergency teams from the Province of Albay, Davao City and other unaffected areas were crucial in restoring health services in Tacloban and in surrounding devastated areas.

It is also important to reinforce life-saving knowledge and behaviors among families.  In the Province of Albay in the Philippines (near Mt Mayon, an active volcano that regularly erupts), all families have designated evacuation centers and disaster preparedness is a way of life.


Climate change and climate justice

The outpouring of support from across the world for the affected communities in the Philippines has been phenomenal in the aftermath of Haiyan. School children in Belgium selling cookies, benefit concerts in New York, London and Manila, garage sales in Auckland and Tokyo  –the global community rose up and pitched in. But it is time to move beyond humanitarianism and charity and channel this global energy to more decisive actions on climate change.

Poor communities and poor countries are disproportionately affected by the impact of climate change. The Philippines is one of those countries that bear the huge brunt of climate-related extreme events. A recent World Bank report makes the case for keeping global warming in check.

Echoing the moving intervention of the Philippine negotiator during the climate talks in Vienna  last year, the global community cannot vacillate and procrastinate on more ambitious actions to stop further deterioration of the environment, drastically reduce green emissions  and to support affected countries in mitigating the impact of climate change.

It is time to stop hiding behind our generosity and humanitarian actions during disasters and rise up to the greater challenge of more a sustainable lifestyle and to demand that our governments take more decisive positive actions for the environment.

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