Ten years after Haiyan: Building back better in the Philippines
On 8 November 2013 Typhoon Haiyan made landfall in the Philippines.
Vicious winds reached 315 kilometres per hour, laying waste to houses and tearing up trees. Tsunami-like storm surges inundated coastal settlements. More than 6,300 people lost their lives, and four million people were displaced, many of them permanently.
The storm – which was known locally as Super Typhoon Yolanda – was possibly the most powerful tropical cyclone to ever make landfall anywhere. Unfortunately, it is unlikely to hold that status. As the climate crisis deepens it is likely that extreme weather events shall intensify and become more frequent.
Tacloban, a city of around 240,000 inhabitants in the Philippines’ Eastern Visayas region, was hit especially hard. The resulting destruction was immense, with thousands of homes and buildings destroyed, including the airport which was struck by a 6-metre-high storm surge. More than 5,900 of the fatalities of the lives lost were in Tacloban.
"There are cars thrown like tumbleweeds and the streets are strewn with debris,” said UN disaster assessment coordinator Sebastian Rhodes Stampa, who arrived on the scene shortly after the typhoon struck. “The last time I saw something of this scale was in the aftermath of the  Indian Ocean tsunami."
Other communities were more fortunate. One small island community, Tulang Diyot village in Cebu Province, lay in the direct path of the storm.
“The day before, when it was clear how bad the typhoon would be, we decided to evacuate all 1,000 people,” said Cebu mayor Alfredo Arquillano. “Because we’ve done so much work on disaster risk everyone fully understood the need to move to safety.”
All of the 500 homes on the island were destroyed, but early warning and disaster planning saved the lives of all 1,000 residents.
The scale of destruction meant that many settlements were in no way habitable, and entire communities needed to be resettled. This provided an opportunity to build more resilient housing, less exposed to natural hazards.
This has not been without challenges, and many have been dislocated from their communities and places of work.
Restoring natural barriers
One of the possible factors exacerbating the destructive force of Typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban was the destruction of mangroves, which can reduce and slow storm surges.
Before 2013, existing mangroves had been cut down to make way for fish farming. The resulting biodiversity loss led to decreases in fish and shellfish stocks, with a knock-on impact on the livelihoods of fisherfolk.
In the aftermath of the typhoon, Tacloban communities have been restoring mangroves, working with civil society organizations and local government to integrate nature-based solutions as a way to both protect coastal communities and benefit from the natural resources that the mangroves provide.
Rebuilding lives and restoring livelihoods
Ten years on, survivors are still rebuilding their lives. Norma Baylen is a farmer in nearby Palo, and president of her local Disaster Preparedness Committee.
“I never thought that... [so many] people would die there. So many people died, so that [makes us] so nervous,” she says.
“We are affected because some of our businesses, especially the farms [,,, were] so damaged. And [...] all the houses are gone. So we are affected because they need to be rebuilt again, the houses, and then [it was] another business to wake up our family to get away...to survive.”
Many of the local farmers have embraced bamboo as a crop. In addition to providing livelihood, and a quick-growing building resource, it offers the additional benefit of contributing to flood control and soil stabilisation.
Since 2013, communities across the Philippines have been determined to follow Tulang Diyot’s good example and ensure that no one is left behind when hazards strike. The country has weathered numerous intense typhoons, although none with the fury of Haiyan, and preparation has paid dividends in lives saved.
When Typhoon Rai (locally named Typhoon Odette) struck with wind speeds of up to 270 kilometres per hour in December 2021, the damages were significant, but the country was able to respond pre-emptively, evacuating more than 400,000 people from the storm’s path, saving countless lives.
This was largely thanks to the implementation of early warning systems, such as PhilAWARE – developed in partnership with the University of Hawaiʻi’s Pacific Disaster Center - which uses advanced modelling to provide the information needed to give early warning and aid rapid response.
The response depended on community-level preparedness and disaster management, and since Typhoon Haiyan there has been an increased focus on community-based disaster management.
“What we learnt is... the importance of a network and partnership. Before Typhoon Yolanda, before 2013, we were so comfortable with our network, our national […] Citizens Disaster Response Network,” said Minet Jerusalem, Executive Director of the Leyte Center for Development.
“Typhoon Yolanda hit us and it hit us hard, and it made us realize many things – the importance of a network … That's just one of our realizations: not be contented with our own little network. We have to expand locally and internationally.”
Now we can sleep
These resilience measures mean that previously at-risk communities feel protected.
“Now, if there's a storm, we can sleep,” says Leonora Martinez, a Typhoon Haiyan survivor. “Nothing to worry [about]. Because before [when] we were there, if there was news – ‘Oh, there's a storm’ – we were very worried because of the sea, we were living at the seaside.”
Setting a regional example
The lessons of Haiyan and other disasters have driven the Philippines to become a regional and global leader in disaster risk reduction.
In October 2024, the Philippines will host the Asia Pacific Ministerial Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (APMCDRR), bringing together leaders from around the region to identify impactful and innovative solutions to disaster risk and promote coordination and cooperation on the implementation of the Sendai Framework in Asia and the Pacific.
“The hosting of the APMCDRR is a sign of the exceptional commitment of the Philippines to a safer and more resilient world for all. It will also be an opportunity for the Philippines to share examples of its achievements and lessons learned from past disasters, especially around enhancing inclusiveness and strengthening local resilience,” said Mami Mizutori, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction, and the Head of UNDRR, who recently visited the of the Philippines to mark the start of the APMCDRR countdown.
The country will showcase its successes in public-private partnerships for climate and disaster resilience, the application of science and technology and nature-based solutions, and the promotion of resilient investments and infrastructure.
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