Lessons in post-disaster management

Lessons in post-disaster management

Houses with roofs and walls in a relocation site, but no water. Photo credits: ESSC
Houses with roofs and walls in a relocation site, but no water. Photo credits: ESSC

Mariel de Jesus

Surviving the typhoon is the initial ordeal for many people who live through climate-related disasters in the Philippines. Losing homes and livelihoods, survivors next face the challenge of restoring a sense of normalcy in their lives. After the initial outpouring of relief goods, people are often left to their own devices, struggling with building homes in new and unfamiliar places and finding work that will put food on the table for their families.

Often also, the areas and communities severely affected during disasters are areas that are already severely degraded and environmentally compromised and communities living in subsistence for decades. As stated in a previous editorial in Ecojesuit three weeks after typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) hit eastern Visayas in the Philippines last November 2013, “(t)hat however has been the flaw of the last century up till now, as people have lived by subsistence in the coasts and uplands of marginal provinces such as Samar, Eastern Samar, Leyte, Southern Leyte, among others. This is an economic and social disaster lived out environmentally by subsistence farming and fishing, now trashed by a storm surge, and laid low by the winds. How can a vibrant network be structured in rural Philippine society that uplifts people and provides an alternative and more secure livelihood and lifestyle?”

During a visit last May 2014 to post-disaster relocation sites in Mindanao, specifically Cagayan de Oro City, Misamis Oriental and Valencia City, Bukidnon, the visiting group facilitated by the Environmental Science for Social Change drew lessons learnt – and also not being learnt – from the experiences of disaster in the Philippines:

Challenges of resettlement

For affected communities, the disaster does not end when the typhoon passes or the floods subside. Another kind of disaster emerges in the wake of the event, and in the case of Yolanda, this was most evident in the situation of people living in sub-standard bunkhouses and poorly planned temporary resettlement areas.

The Red Cross Village in Valencia City, Bukidnon in Mindanao is a relocation site for survivors of tropical storm Sendong (Washi, December 2011) and typhoon Pablo (Bopha, December 2012). The current situation illustrated the concerns of disaster survivors and challenges the usual responses of both government and civil society or humanitarian organizations working in disaster relief and recovery.

Two years after typhoon Pablo, families have a roof over their heads but still do not have most of the fundamental and basic services critical for health and safety, security and comfort. Although recognized as a basic human right, the provision of water cannot be taken for granted in a relocation site. Some households in the Valencia site are digging their own deep wells, with no consideration of the location and proximity to their septic tanks.

Despite government’s recognition of the merits of on-site housing (rebuilding in the same area), there are cases where this is unsafe and must not be allowed.

Houses are allowed, and continue, to be built dangerously, this one on a riverbank, putting its residents at high risk. Photo credits: ESSC
Houses are allowed, and continue, to be built dangerously, this one on a riverbank, putting its residents at high risk. Photo credits: ESSC

Planning resettlement sites also includes recognizing the importance of access to employment and other livelihood opportunities. For families who lost everything in a disaster, a PhP 20-transportation fare is a great sacrifice and many are unwilling or unable to pay.

Previous employment or livelihood options may no longer be possible in the new site and there is limited support for communities who must find new ways to make a living. Many are enticed into taking out loans from local traders or financiers that may spiral into a cycle of debt that is very difficult to overcome.

For organizations working in post-disaster contexts, it is critical to assess the needs and capacities of communities and to identify inherent skills in the community that can be developed and made productive. While some humanitarian agencies focus on the “bare bones” of recovery, i.e. providing and installing a roof, there is a need to extend other types of assistance especially when a family is starting from zero and is unable to recover on its own.

However, this must be carefully balanced. For instance, humanitarian agencies often distribute shelter kits to allow people to rebuild their houses after a typhoon. When communities are living in high-risk areas, this can create a sense of false security and can sustain a situation where people continue to live in danger.

Early participation

Stakeholder participation in disaster recovery is critical but it is also important before a disaster. There are numerous success stories that show how early warning and pre-emptive evacuation led to a reduction and even prevention of unnecessary deaths and injuries. These initiatives rely on effective leadership and capacity at the local level. The development of a disaster risk reduction protocol is an initial step in shaping a strategy in which all stakeholders are engaged and where the communication and dissemination of information are critical.

Watershed planning and governance

Disaster risk reduction involves planning and it is important to start with a geographical unit that is a natural system, not simply a political one. Watershed-based planning is identified as a critical element to disaster risk reduction as this framework allows the understanding of the relations from upstream to downstream. This upstream-downstream link must be strengthened through networking and communication among local government units and communities within the watershed area. In the case of Cagayan de Oro, the challenge is in the appropriate land and water management in the upper catchment areas.

Managing post-disaster, not sustaining another disaster

Active and informed preparedness for a disaster is critical, as this can mean the difference between surviving and dying. This preparedness to disasters enables local governments and communities respond more effectively and prevent long-term situations of sustained disaster where people continue to live in high-risk areas and high-risk resettlement and relocation sites. Safety of people is primary, and with the adequate social and economic accompaniment, we are not leading areas and communities to another disaster.

This article was developed from site visit learnings during the Conference on Transformative Land and Water Governance organized by the Environmental Science for Social Change, the Belgian Commission Universitaire pour le Devéloppement, and the Global Ignatian Advocacy Network-Ecology last May 2014.



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