Issue 63 - Article 1

Coordinating the response to Typhoon Haiyan

January 16, 2015
David Carden and Ashley Jonathan Clements
Supplies being unloaded from a helicopter in Tanauan

Typhoon Haiyan made landfall on 8 November 2013, cementing the position of the Philippines as one of the countries most at risk from natural hazards. Within days of the disaster the Emergency Relief Coordinator formally activated a system-wide level 3 (L3) response – a designation marking the highest level of humanitarian crisis. In responding to the needs of 14 million affected people, the Haiyan response became the first large-scale relief effort for a sudden-onset disaster since the Inter-Agency Standing Committee protocols under the Transformative Agenda were adopted, setting the parameters for improved collective action in humanitarian emergencies.

Scaling up

Accompanying the L3 declaration was a massive interagency surge that saw over 450 international staff deployed within the first three weeks. There was a particular emphasis on information management necessitated by the scale and geographic impact of Haiyan, and recurring highimpact disasters that had affected in-country capacities in the lead-up to the typhoon. The L3 declaration also made available $25 million through the UN Central Emergency Response Fund, and the Strategic Response Plan (SRP) brought in $468m of the requested $776m, including projects from over 50 UN agencies and NGOs. An additional $375m-worth of funding was recorded for projects outside the SRP, with a far larger amount not registered on the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)’s Financial Tracking System.

This unprecedented scaling up of response structures and personnel was set against the backdrop of a middleincome country with strong national capacities and a welldeveloped disaster management system. Long-standing relationships meant that coordination with the government was strong from the outset. Government-led humanitarian clusters – enshrined in national law in 2007 – led and oversaw coordination for the response, with the support of international actors. Despite being heavily affected itself, the government provided an enabling environment for international responders, with visas being waived during the first months, and some Local Government Units (LGUs) hosted humanitarian agencies throughout the response. Even so, interoperability between the international humanitarian system and the national Philippines response framework was a challenge, particularly around strategic planning and how long humanitarian action should be pursued before giving way to recovery.

New ways of working

The social, political and economic environment in the Philippines was highly conducive to new initiatives, which humanitarian agencies were quick to embrace. Some were driven by field imperatives, others by global priorities. The Haiyan response saw advisors from a range of areas being deployed in support of the response, including gender, private sector engagement and the environment. OCHA established its largest sustained civil–military coordination operation to date, leading engagement with 22 militaries and the Armed Forces of the Philippines. As well as being the largest single donor under the SRP (accounting for 26%), the private sector also responded directly from the very earliest stages. Significant efforts were made to engage the private sector at the local, national and international level, including briefing companies on how best to assist affected communities and partnering with businesses in the provision of cash-based assistance.

At least 45 international humanitarian agencies used cash transfers, reaching 1.4m disaster-affected people. In addition to emergency employment and livelihoods, cash assistance was used extensively in support of food security and shelter, constituting around a fifth of the response in each of these sectors. Due to the number of actors involved, the scale of cash interventions, and differing approaches within the sector, cash transfers were difficult to monitor and coordinate, particularly as many took place outside the established humanitarian coordination architecture. Preparedness work that encompasses planning around cash – in particular the role of financial service providers within the Philippines – is underway to ensure a more systematic and efficient approach to cash in future responses. More thinking is also needed at the global level to better define the role of cash during a response (and beyond), and the coordination structures needed to maximise its effectiveness.

Preparedness work by both national and international humanitarian actors ensured that effective systems and structures were in place prior to Typhoon Haiyan, even though the impact of the storm proved to be beyond what could be accommodated without external support. The Haiyan response has highlighted how critical adequate investment in emergency preparedness is, a point reinforced yet again following Typhoon Ruby in December 2014, where the government’s preparedness efforts have been widely praised.

Engaging communities

The Philippines became a priority country for global initiatives around Accountability to Affected Populations (AAP) and Communications with Communities (CwC). Whilst AAP has its origins in civil society concepts of accountability and the importance of adapting interventions to the priorities of communities themselves, CwC focuses on meeting the information and communications needs of people affected by crisis.

At the outset of the Haiyan response these two areas were seen to have limited overlap. As the sectors matured, however, they became more closely integrated, culminating in a jointly-managed inter-agency community feedback mechanism. In several field locations the AAP and CwC working groups merged. The flow of information from affected communities was channelled through these mechanisms directly to relevant clusters and the inter-cluster forum, with the aim of increasing the quality of programming and to better inform decision-making.

Despite serving as a model to better integrate AAP and CwC activities, closing the feedback loop and keeping communities fully informed remains a challenge for the sector, as does monitoring the impact of these systems.

In search of durable solutions

In the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, the Philippines government announced that it would take steps to enforce a national policy restricting the building of private dwellings in high-risk areas. Humanitarian assistance was restricted within these zones to activities that did not encourage permanent settlement in an attempt to discourage housing. Yet many of the most vulnerable families – and those most affected by Haiyan – have few alternatives, and so continue to reside within these restricted zones. This presents a dilemma between the imperative to meet short-term humanitarian needs and the longer-term objective of encouraging vulnerable families to relocate. LGUs in affected areas continue to pursue durable solutions for those displaced by Haiyan. One year on from the typhoon, around 5,000 families were still living in bunkhouses, tent settlements and evacuation centres, down from an initial caseload of 4m people displaced immediately after the storm. With estimates that over 200,000 families (up to 1m individuals) continue to live in areas deemed ‘unsafe’ across Haiyan-affected regions, the solution is likely to unfold over many years, and will form a critical component of the recovery. Identifying sufficient land to house these communities has proved difficult, and requires significant investment to ensure that adequate services are in place.

The transition to recovery

The immediate response was generally seen as timely and effective. Life-saving assistance was delivered at scale, reinforced by the L3 declaration and the subsequent system-wide support that was mobilised. Given the magnitude of the disaster – which would have overwhelmed the capacity of any country – the inter-national community complemented national capacities by repositioning in-country personnel to affected areas and quickly ramping up operations with international surge deployments. Government leadership was at times overshadowed, particularly at the local level where national capacities were particularly stretched.

Despite the magnitude of the disaster and pre-existing levels of poverty, the response to Typhoon Haiyan took place in an environment of significant resilience and rapid self-recovery among affected communities. Displaced families were quick to rebuild where possible – albeit often to a lower standard than they had enjoyed before the typhoon – and the resumption of livelihoods rapidly became a key focus. Humanitarian actors on the ground proved sufficiently nimble to keep pace with these shifting priorities as initial food and water distributions gave way to longer-term food security and water, sanitation and health programming.

Field hubs were established in centres of high humanitarian need and where large numbers of actors were present, and usually where local government capacity was good, but not necessarily where provincial authorities were located. This model proved effective for the initial phase of the response – which tended to be channelled through LGUs. But as recovery activities picked up pace, primarily through provincial actors, and the focus of the national authorities moved away from humanitarian interventions, a physical disconnect became apparent between international actors and provincial or regional structures. This posed a significant challenge for recovery coordination and a smooth transition to development.

With up to a million people still living in ‘unsafe’ zones, and many of the buildings used as evacuation centres during Haiyan now damaged, the ability of communities to cope with future disasters has been significantly reduced. In Eastern Samar, for example, only 8% of evacuation centres were still usable after the typhoon. Despite the speed with which recovery activities became possible, the lasting impact of the response will be determined largely by the extent to which these remaining vulnerabilities are addressed.

The road ahead

At the one-year mark of the response a physical and strategic realignment had taken place to ensure that international actors were working in support of government recovery efforts, both at the national and local level. This transition is now broadly on track despite initial delays, but a transition framework could have helped build momentum and increased coherence earlier.

Reinforcing the successes achieved during the humani-tarian phase of the Haiyan response hinges on this transition process, and more specifically on the effective management and coordination of recovery and development activities. The challenges faced by actors in the Philippines in overseeing this handover have highlighted the systemic disconnect between humanitarian and development approaches – a disconnect made all the more apparent during a rapid-onset emergency with early opportunities for recovery. More thinking and greater resources at the global level could ease this burden in future responses – particularly for a rapid-onset disaster like Typhoon Haiyan, in which national capacities and local resilience ensured a rapid move towards recovery. Investment in and planning for transition must begin at the earliest possible stage of the response.

David Carden is Head of OCHA Philippines. Ashley Jonathan Clements is the former Head of Sub-Office Ormoc, OCHA Philippines.


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