More resilient future within reach
There is much to reflect on in the new year. The mix of sorrow and hopefulness that filled 2014 has been astounding.
For many survivors living in areas that were devastated by Typhoon “Yolanda,” life remains a daily struggle. Roads have long been cleared of debris and businesses are open once again, but a harsh reality of inadequate income and inadequate housing prevails for too many poor families.
Many coconut farmers who had their entire livelihood wiped out overnight continue to struggle to clear their fields of debris, unable to replant let alone harvest, and anxious about eviction as informal settlers unable to pay their rent. Fishers who are faced with lesser catch due to typhoon damage to coral reefs and the continued degradation of fishing grounds struggle to feed their families while preoccupied with how they will continue their livelihood in the face of resettlement to areas away from the coast.
Across Yolanda-affected communities, these are the daily worries that families are grappling with more than a year after the storm.
As 2014 made clear, the Philippines remains vulnerable to disasters—whether supertyphoons or the regular “small disasters” that undermine the people’s ability to move out of poverty. With poverty levels in Eastern Visayas the second highest in the country, the compounding impacts of Yolanda and Typhoons “Glenda,” “Queenie,” “Ruby,” and now “Seniang” have eroded the ability of households to recover.
As Ruby so brutally laid bare, too many in the region are simply unable to effectively cope with another lost harvest, another loan, another blow to the wellbeing, health and opportunity of the most vulnerable members of our community.
But there is also much reason for hope. While Ruby was not as strong as originally feared, it nevertheless unleashed dangerous winds, storm surges and flooding. As the largest peacetime evacuation the country has ever seen was underway, the potential loss of life and damage to key assets were minimized. In the days leading up to Ruby making landfall, clear communication of weather advisories and their implications propelled communities to undertake key preparations.
Farmers harvested what crops they could, fishers moved their boats inland, and households tied down their roofs, prepared emergency food supplies, and evacuated. A total of 1.6 million people sought shelter in evacuation centers at the height of the storm. These indicators of preparedness are incredibly promising.
The task we now face is to build on these successes. Disaster risk reduction works. And it can play an even stronger role in ensuring that communities nationwide remain safe and that the aggravating cycle of vulnerability to disasters, poverty and inequality is broken.
With more than 20 typhoons a year and increasingly strong storms brought by climate change, living with disaster is a reality in the Philippines. Further investment in mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery is how we can minimize its impacts. While the scale of evacuations seen with Ruby is positive, it was not perfect: The lack of clean drinking water, toilets, space and privacy in evacuation centers must now be addressed, along with the continued location of some facilities in hazard-prone areas.
Building on disaster reduction gains requires not only increased funds but also the increased participation and capacity of communities themselves, including vulnerable and marginalized members. Women, for instance, have demonstrated remarkable leadership in disaster preparedness and response, often organizing evacuation efforts, ensuring that children and elderly people are safe, and playing important protection roles in evacuation centers. This active role of women must be further strengthened, as well as the ability of local government units to develop, finance and implement community-based planning tools, including disaster risk reduction plans.
Oxfam is piloting a new approach to disaster risk reduction in Eastern Samar: It supports women to take on even greater leadership in their communities while aiming to integrate the different needs and capacities of women and men in disaster preparedness and response across sectors, including livelihood, water and sanitation, and health. In parallel, we are contributing to national-level systems change, including through the sunset review of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act of 2010, set to take place this year, by identifying how it can be further strengthened and fully implemented at the local level.
As we look to the year ahead, despite the many challenges, there is much opportunity. Oxfam is committed to continuing its work with Yolanda-affected communities. The highlights of these efforts in 2014 include training women carpenters to contribute to the reconstruction of their communities and working with municipalities to establish more effective water and sanitation systems. But recovery challenges remain, and efforts must be scaled up to match the extent of the continued devastation and to address underlying vulnerabilities.
The lessons of 2014 are at the forefront of our thoughts. It is not enough to build disaster-resilient infrastructure and hope for the best. To truly “build back better,” we must look at how decreased poverty, strengthened disaster risk reduction systems, and increased capacity of marginalized groups to influence the decisions that impact their lives can contribute to a recovery that enables households to better cope with the next disaster.
I hope that 2015 is shaped by the difficult lessons of the past, and inspired by the enormous strides made in 2014. This requires greater commitment, investment and participation across levels of government and within communities in ensuring decreased vulnerability and increased preparedness. A brighter, more resilient future is within our reach.
Justin Morgan is Oxfam’s country director in the Philippines.
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