The role of structure and infrastructure in disaster reduction

The role of structure and infrastructure in disaster reduction

“Re-building” along the Tacloban coastline, 16 November 2013. Photo credit: P Walpole

Pedro Walpole, SJ

There is now an awareness that after typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) hit central Philippines last 8 November 2013, infrastructure broke down, and not just roads and bridges, but also communication channels, power, water, transportation. Economic structures where subsistence co-exists with poverty also broke down, and there is now the immediate challenge for people to build livable structures as their housing. Structuring a whole response of sustainable cities and villages as a reality, beyond an architectural print-out, is the challenge the country faces.

Twenty days after, there are more than 5,500 dead, around 1,700 missing and 26,000 injured, approximately 11 million persons affected in around 12,000 barangays, 44 provinces, 580 municipalities, and 57 cities, around 3.5 million people displaced (with 3.3 million served outside evacuation centers, and 226,000 outside), 1.15 million houses damaged, PhP 13.2 billion (US$ 301 million) worth of damaged infrastructure, and PhP 11.4 billion (US$ 260 million) worth of damaged agriculture. Power, water, and communications are partially restored, the airport and seaport are functioning minimally. (Source: NDRRMC Update, SitRep No 45 Effects of Typhoon “Yolanda” (Haiyan), 27 November 2013, 6:00 pm)

The Central Bank of the Philippines and global investment banks are unanimous in saying that while there is an expected negative impact of the typhoon on the Philippine economy for the fourth quarter, the overall impact on the economy’s growth is “manageable.” But “manageable” is an inappropriate word for what the typhoon also laid bare and can be viewed as the greater disasters, and for which our country must better prepare and better respond.

Infrastructure damage, Tacloban, 16 November 2013.
Photo credit: P Walpole

Now that President Aquino has called for a comprehensive plan to rehabilitate and re-build typhoon-damaged areas, it is imperative that this plan is not approached in a business-as-usual mode and that this is not just about building back, but building better. Key elements identified by the task force are shelter and reconstruction, power restoration, livelihood and employment, resettlement and psycho-social care, environmental protection, and resource generation and allocation.

There were a few local governments that managed the pre-disaster evacuation with greater effectiveness, and so the disaster was greatly reduced for their area. This is a learning point and is a useful reference in the re-structuring of local government capacity.

A coherent list of capacities that local governments must have for preparedness, response, rehabilitation and recovery, and prevention and mitigation needs to be drawn up, and is where relief money can be better utilized, along with their regular funds from the national treasury, the Internal Revenue Allocation. One simple capacity for example is for water purification. A liter of drinking water can be disinfected by putting four drops of iodine, such as Povidone-Iodine/10% (®Betadine), and leave standing for an hour. There was such a lack of water for days, it’s as if this simple approach was forgotten.

Going through the wave of debris left on the shore, what was significant was the matchstick housing material made up primarily of 2x2inch (5x5cm) wood, round wood and pieces of plywood that are now being re-used in family shelter reconstruction. What was most obvious in the debris was the absence of 4x4in (10x10cm) or 6x6in (15x15cm) wood that would give structure to a habitation. Foundations, the structure of the buildings, particularly the spacing of purlins in the roof, need to be reviewed for low cost housing. If the government says there is no housing along the shoreline ever again, there has to be land allocation somewhere that allows the fishing community to operate. Obviously, the cost of land allocation cannot be borne by people of subsistence livelihood, and strategies must be designed and a process developed that will respond to this situation.

A public school between Ormoc and Tacloban,
16 November 2013. Photo credit: P Walpole

The Department of Education is set to release its guidelines on the use of schools as evacuation centers as there are concerns on class disruption and part of the recovery of a community is that children can get back to school the soonest possible. The school buildings generally remain occupied long after a disaster event, and the schools also need to be rehabilitated. Schools with a second floor, not on the shoreline of Tacloban, but in other municipalities, were safe and effective structures as would any building that followed the design of the Iglesia ni Kristo churches.

Sifting through the debris and reviewing the bits of structure that survived tell us a lot about how we cannot just simply re-build, but strategize so that one is not pushed to ground zero all the time.

There is at present much attention and national focus on the rebuilding of Tacloban City and Ormoc City, but we must not forget that it is not only these cities that suffered. The network of rural municipalities clearly lag behind partly because it does not have a central political voice, partly because it does not have a significant middle class, and also because in being rural, it is viewed being able to look after itself, i.e. subsist.

That 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?

One of the churches in Tacloban, 16 November 2013.
Photo credit: P Walpole

We are now entering a dual phase in the post-disaster situation, shifting the focus from immediate relief, as the immediacy of relief is being met though still inadequate, to an interim period of response where shelters and services are built. We are also building towards an initial phase of livelihood in three months with basic vegetable production and it will be a two-year, five-year phase for those engaged in coconut farming. Fishing communities need boats, but all need a greater economic participation.

Livelihood is largely a rural concept that defines how things are held together within a family management structure as against a professional who will not refer to his or her work as a livelihood. Livelihood has much more social and environmental integrity. Unfortunately, many of the urban poor scrape together a livelihood because they are below the radar of the urban structured economy. These are the informal settlers who actually keep the economy in many respects afloat because of substandard labor practices, local markets, street vendors, dumpsites, junk dealers, and other informal sources of cash.

There is also a growing sense of global participation in understanding how to design cities and villages and not just responding to disaster and with the best that the global community can offer. The Philippines can respond to a new vision which is not an idealism, but a realism of the sustainable cities and villages that we need.


4 thoughts on “The role of structure and infrastructure in disaster reduction

  1. Hi, I’m a uni student who is studying Emergency Management and I am doing my first assignment on Tacloban City and consequences of Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. I am going to use some of the data, facts and pictures from ‘the role of structure and infrastructure in disaster reduction’. I notice that there is no page with references and I’m in need of this, plus the name Pedro Walpole, SJ. I think he may have been the author &/or photographer and I need permission to work the information into my assignment for the purpose of my assignment. I’d be grateful if you could get back to me asap.
    Also if you know of any further work and support in the last few years I’d 2017-2020 I’d be grateful.
    Regards, Annette

    1. Hi Annette

      I don’t understand what you need. This is an online article so you can cite this article as a reference. Pedro Walpole SJ is the author and these are his photos and you may use these, just kindly acknowledge.

      There are many documents that you can search in Google, and also where Pedro is connected, with ESSC ( and also with Ecojesuit (, among many other articles.

      Hope these help.

    1. Dear Father Jack

      Thanks for your note!

      I understand your concern, but I hope that if you are reading Ecojesuit using a laptop or a PC, you can use the “zoom in” tool to enlarge the print. And of course, if you’re using a tablet, the zoom in function is right at your fingertips 🙂

      Our kind regards,

      Sylvia Miclat
      for Ecojesuit

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