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Commentary

Careless dev’t models in ‘Yolanda’s’ wake

/ 05:01 AM November 09, 2019

On Nov. 8 in 2013, one of the strongest storms on record swept through the Pacific, leaving a broad scar of untold devastation in its wake. Supertyphoon Yolanda battered the Philippines, Taiwan, China and Vietnam, damaging more than 280,000 homes and leaving 1.9 million people homeless. The Philippines bore the brunt of the superstorm, with 6,300 people dead and destruction totaling $14 billion. And in the direct path of Yolanda was Tacloban, in Leyte, Eastern Visayas, which was almost entirely flattened.

Recovery efforts in Tacloban have been laudable, but six years later the city’s struggle to get back on its feet continues. Many citizens are still homeless, and resettlement efforts are creating new conflicts, with those being resettled in new areas north of the city now displacing farming communities that have worked their land for generations.

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As Tacloban rebuilds, there are greater challenges and uncertainties yet to come. The effects of climate change are here: The last five years have been the warmest on record, and hotter days, higher seas and heightened disasters will become the norm in the years to come. The Paris Climate Agreement, the international community’s response to climate change, is a beacon of hope, but cannot be counted on to filter down to Tacloban and other urban and rural areas in danger.

The unpredictability of the climate, and related disasters, clearly demand an urgent response from communities from Miami to Mumbai, including Tacloban and the whole archipelago. However, the Stockholm Environment Institute’s initiative on Transforming Development and Disaster Risk has concluded that the rush to “build back better” from climate-related disasters often falls prey to current dominant development models that focus on short-term economic growth, in addition to short-term relief, at the expense of long-term resilience and adaptation that will help communities better face disasters and reduce their future risks. Short-sighted development projects can, in many cases, act as the root cause of disasters.

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We must transform the current development model, both before and after disasters, to ensure the next storm with 300 km/h winds does not have the same devastating impact. Transformation will require a more holistic outlook—a better understanding of the impacts of our development decisions, as well as more inclusive decision-making leading to significant policy changes.

This transformation will require challenging existing structures, power relations, vested interests and dominant narratives that not only profit from “business as usual,” but can also perpetuate poverty, inequality and marginalization. In Tacloban, coastal communities were resettled in sites constructed by the government and other donors in Tacloban North, after the government’s decision to establish no-build zones in the city’s coastal areas post-Yolanda. While the strategy may have succeeded in moving people out of harm’s way, the resettlements also displaced many of North Tacloban’s farmers, in some cases leading to their eviction. Some of the farmers have been evicted two or three times, the displacements thus creating more instability for land rights that were already insecure prior to the typhoon.

Effective development and disaster risk reduction in Tacloban will require forward thinking, for better policy and participatory processes that can reach out to all communities. We can begin by identifying opportunities for transformation that involve the inevitable trade-offs between development and managing risks, while also ensuring that all actions contribute to social equality and justice. We can also encourage more adaptive governance by promoting institutional experimentation and innovation, in recognition that interactions between people and the environment are inherently unpredictable.

These people-environment interactions will likely become more unpredictable as climate change impacts amplify. Though this year’s typhoon season is not yet over, it is already the second costliest on record, behind only last year, which produced 29 storms, 13 typhoons and 7 supertyphoons. As Tacloban continues to heal, recover and reimagine its future, we can mark the sixth year since Yolanda upended so many lives with hope, and with a call for transformation. We must work together to ensure that development is inclusive, equitable, resilient and sustainable for all. As the next generation inherits these ever thornier challenges, this transformation will ensure they are equipped to forge a better future for their communities.

Jamie Kemsey is the communications officer for the Asia office of the Stockholm Environment Institute.

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TAGS: Paris climate agreement, supertyphoon ‘yolanda’
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