A disaster risk reduction workshop with government, NGOs, academics and indigenous communities in the Philippines A disaster risk reduction workshop with government, NGOs, academics and indigenous communities in the Philippines Photo credit: Horacio Marcos C. Mordeno, MindaNews
Typhoon Haiyan: pushing the limits of DRR?
by Katie Peters and Mirianna Budimir January 2015

Compared to other countries in the region, the Philippines is well prepared in terms of Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR). DRR is embedded in local through to national policies. Over the past 40 years, the government has steadily evolved national policy, from disaster response to disaster management to disaster risk management and finally risk reduction. DRR is mainstreamed in development planning, with different government departments addressing each aspect of Disaster Risk Reduction and Management (DRRM). The Office for Civil Defense implements and moni-tors the overall scope of DRRM. Government spending on DRR is close to $800 million per year.

Despite these achievements, Typhoon Haiyan still resulted in massive destruction: almost 15m people were affected, 4m displaced and approximately 6,000 killed; losses were estimated at $830m. Why was this? The answer lies in two parts: the sheer scale of the typhoon, and the country’s underlying vulnerability and poverty. The scale of the destruction also raises an important question: are there limits to DRR?

Haiyan was possibly the strongest typhoon to make landfall on record globally in terms of windspeed, with 253km per hour winds and a storm surge that may have reached 7.5 meters high. Between 2 and 12 November 2013 most of the island of Leyte received rainfall totals greater than 500mm, with a peak of over 685mm in the south-east corner of the island. The wall of water caused by the typhoon was particularly devastating for many low-lying islands; Tacloban City is located in a particularly vulnerable position at the head of San Pedro Bay, with the majority of the city only five meters above sea level. Haiyan was, in short, an enormous event. Officials admitted that government systems were not adequately prepared for a disaster of this magnitude, in part because preparing for such adverse conditions is beyond the country’s means, despite substantial international support totalling $8 billion in Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) loans between 2001 and 2011.

In addition to the scale of the typhoon, one of the clearest explanations for the Philippines’ lack of preparedness may, sadly, also be one of the most difficult to address: its poverty.+Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, ActionAid, Tearfund, Christian Aid and Oxfam, Missed Again: Making Space for Partnership in the Typhoon Haiyan Response, http://www.christianaid.org.uk/Images/Missed-Again-Typhoon-Haiyan-September-2014.pdf. The Philippines is ranked 165th in the world in terms of GDP per capita, and almost two million people live on less than $2 per day. In order to better cope with disasters, these high levels of poverty and vulnerability must be addressed.

The scale of the typhoon also raises challenging questions about the level of acceptable risk and the limits to DRR and preparedness measures. Typhoon Haiyan stretched national and international response capacities to their limits; if a hazard on a similar scale faced the country again, what can we change now to ensure that its impact is less severe and the response more effective? A large part of what is needed to improve humanitarian response actually has nothing to do with humanitarians. While nationally the Philippines invests heavily (polit-ically and financially) in DRR, more can and should be done by the inter-national community:

  • we need to get better at providing support for preparedness before a disaster and during recovery;
  • we need to change the narrative: investing in DRR makes good economic sense; and
  • we need to get tougher on making ODA investments risk-informed.

Preparedness and recovery

Evidence from the Philippines shows that there are fundamental gaps in financing for DRR, especially locally. The international community is notoriously poor at providing support for preparedness and recovery and reconstruction. Investing in one component of prepared-ness – early warning systems, for instance – is fruitless without investment in other components as well, such as evacuation plans. More investment is also needed in recovery. In the Philippines, less than half of the $788m required for recovery had been received by February 2014; six months after the typhoon, two million people were still living without adequate shelter or housing.

Greater support is also needed to enable national capacity to take over recovery in the aftermath of disaster. International agencies working in the Haiyan response struggled to hand over leadership and coordination of the recovery to the government and were unwilling to entrust a greater share of the response to national organisations, in turn leading to a further influx of internationals to build national capacity in key institutions. Addressing this requires more concerted attention on the part of the international community – as well as political will within the national government. It took a full year following the disaster for President Benigno Aquino to approve a $3.6bn reconstruction plan for affected areas. DRRM plans need to include processes to effectively transfer responsibility for post-disaster initiatives between different international and national actors. At present we lack examples of good practice for the effective coordination of national and international post-disaster finance; as the Philippines is one of the more advanced countries in thinking and acting on DRR, it could provide a good test case for trialling innovative financing arrangements.

DRR makes good economic sense

In addition to sufficient funding, preparedness can also be improved by changing the narrative, discourse and language typically used to encourage investment in DRR. Philippine efforts to mainstream DRRM are commendable, and the international community must reinforce and support this ambition by ensuring that mainstream development actors fully embrace sustainable development that takes risk into account in decision-making.

Investments come in many forms; here we focus on ODA. In an era where value for money (VfM) and cost efficiency dominate donor rhetoric, the argument for investment in and uptake of DRR needs to be reframed. Currently, the economic case for DRR focuses on the measurement of costs and benefits: for every dollar invested in DRR, a certain amount is saved in terms of reduced losses and/or reduced expenditure on the response.+https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/67330/Econ-Ear-Rec-Res-Full-Report_20.pdf. This argument has failed to have impact at the scale required, for a variety of reasons: it does not compare like for like choices between DRR and disaster response; the ‘market’ for responding to disasters is much larger than the ‘market’ for risk reduction;+See the discussion on incentives in the 2014 World Development Report. cost–benefit approaches focus on losses, as directly compared to potential gains, which tends to ignore the wider macro-economic or foreign direct investment dimensions that can be associated with strong performance in disaster resilience; and the practitioners engaged in undertaking cost–benefit exercises are largely separate from those making large-scale economic decisions, and fail to communicate findings in ways that seem relevant to decision-makers.

A new narrative is needed that draws on the language of VfM and the post-2015 agenda, based on economic growth, sustainable development, investment and benefits for other areas. Investing in DRR should not be framed only as preparation for a disaster that ‘might’ come: people are less likely to spend money on a ‘might’. Instead, DRR needs framing in terms of the benefits that will accrue from investment even if a disaster does not strike, including a more attractive investment climate, job creation, sustainable economic growth, improved livelihoods and the benefits of enabling local communities to manage risk.

Tougher, risk-informed ODA

It must become a duty and an obligation for ODA to be risk-informed. Transitions in and out of disasters, and underlying poverty and vulnerability to disasters, would be reduced if mainstream development interventions systematically sought to manage disaster risk. Projected climate and disaster risks in the Philippines make clear that failing to take account of risk in ODA is short-sighted;+http://cdkn.org/resource/highlights-south-asia-ar5/. with an increase in the number of disasters, economic exposure to disasters is increasing faster than per capita GDP. The effect of climate change on the severity and frequency of hazards will accentuate existing trends in disaster losses in the future, as well as projected poverty rates for vulnerable people.+http://www.odi.org/sites/odi.org.uk/files/odi-assets/publications-opinion-files/8633.pdf. Such economic exposure directly increases the level of risk for aid agencies across all development sectors with regard to their investment portfolio. The Asian Development Bank, for example, estimates that 58% of its portfolio is at medium to high risk from climate change impacts.+K. Peters, C. Cabot Venton and F. Richards, Why Integration Makes Good Economic Sense (London: ODI, 2014).

In many respects the Philippines government is ahead of the aid game in terms of embedding risk in legislation, policies and practice. The international community needs to catch up. A fundamental shift is required; we must manage risk responsibly through mainstream development interventions in order to reduce the burden on humanitarian response. Humanitarian actors should be banging down the doors of their development counterparts to ensure that this happens. Setting an appropriate international policy framework in the future would be a significant step forward in this regard. We must become more competent at ‘risk-informed’ decision making: to consciously make decisions around when to take risks, when to spread them and when to minimise them.

Moving forward: post-2015 frameworks

Although the Philippines invests heavily in preparing for disasters, Typhoon Haiyan showed that gaps remain and need to be addressed. The international community needs to get tougher on making existing ODA investments risk-informed; we can learn a lot from the Philippines’ approach to prioritising and integrating DRR in its policy, budgetary and decision-making frameworks. However, the underlying poverty and vulnerability of the Philippines complicated and worsened the effect of Haiyan, making the humanitarian response a much bigger task. To reduce the burden on humanitarian assistance in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, humanitarians should be collaborating with their development colleagues to enact DRR and preparedness measures before an event occurs. Here, the narrative used to encourage investment in DRR needs to change from one of costs and benefits to one of good economic sense. Finally, as Haiyan demonstrates, the process of transition out of disasters also needs to be improved, in particular the transfer of responsibility to governments and the coherence of funding streams.

Building DRR into the post-2015 development frameworks is one way to ensure longevity in efforts to mainstream risk reduction and ensure that we get better at transitions out of disaster and into recovery. Obtaining national and international commitment to take action to reduce existing risk, avoid new risk and manage residual risk – through the post-2015 frameworks for DRR, the Sustainable Development Goals and climate change agreement – is a clear, practical way for the humanitarian community to ensure that, when a response is not required, development efforts are mitigating the risk and severity of future disasters.+http://www.odi.org/sites/odi.org.uk/files/odi-assets/publications-opinion-files/8996.pdf. Typhoon Haiyan also raises more challenging questions – questions that will be asked more frequently as climate extremes take their toll. What scale of disasters should we aim to undertake DRR measures, and be prepared, for? And with climate change making extremes the new norm, are there limits to DRR?

Katie Peters is a Research Fellow at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI). Mirianna Budimir is an independent researcher.