Philippines can 'build back better'

Mega-disasters like super typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines can be an opportunity for devastated communities to re-envision a different future, one built on resiliency to disaster and stronger community ties.

AP Photo
Survivors walk inside a damaged church at Tacloban city, Leyte province, Philippines on Sunday, Nov. 17. Typhoon Haiyan, one of the most powerful storms on record, hit the country's eastern seaboard Nov. 8.

After mega-disasters like typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, aid officials often talk of a need to “build back better.” A recovery should not go back to old, often risky norms. Homes must be built to withstand ocean surges or earthquakes. Businesses should have built-in resiliency. Most of all, communities must re-envision a new future.  

Such talk has only begun in the Philippines. The Nov. 8 super typhoon has killed nearly 4,000 by the latest count and has left 4 million displaced. Some half a million homes have been damaged. A global outpouring of compassion has brought aid from 28 countries. The 1 in 10 Filipinos who work abroad have begun local aid drives.

Some of the quickest aid has came from the United States, a close ally of the Philippines and whose military is now well-practiced in Asia in its humanitarian response. The region is home to most of the world’s natural hazards.

A few signs of normalcy have begun in the storm-ravaged islands of Leyete and Samar. Tacloban city’s traditional flea market revived slightly on Saturday, with some people selling necessities such as clothes. A few gasoline stations have reopened. Homes are being reconstructed.

On Sunday, people gathered at churches to pray, console one other, and to give thanks. In Manila, the country’s Roman Catholic archbishop, Cardina Luis Antonio Tagle , sent this message: “It is a time to show a love that is stronger than an earthquake or a typhoon. With this love, human lives would be restored and our nation rebuilt.”

The Philippines must do more than rebuild to old standards. If climate change is bringing stronger storms, countries that lie in their path should not only build structures that can withstand a disaster. They can also create tighter communities and more durable local economies. A country’s physical capital is only as good as its “capital” in human caring, which can spring back more easily than material structures.

President Benigno Aquino has started to draft a strategic reconstruction plan, which he may propose in a couple weeks. He only visited the devastated areas this past weekend, both promising money for rebuilding but also asking survivors to begin the task themselves. “The process will move faster with your help,” he told residents in the hard-hit town of Guiuan.

The best kind of reconstruction can spur new types of economic growth, according to University of the Philippines professor Benjamin Diokno, former Philippine budget secretary. That happened after two previous disasters in the Philippines: an earthquake in 1990 and the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1992.

The part of the Philippines hit directly by Haiyan is highly dependent on fishing, coconut cultivation, and palm oil production. All three of these industries may be expensive to restore or take years to recover. Alternative livelihoods should be proposed for these communities. The Philippines has strong advantages in being open to trade and in having English as one of its languages.

The government can set up a central rehabilitation commission that can not only rebuild communities but work with residents to explore new types of businesses. Disasters can be an opportunity for local communities to weave a stronger and different future.  They can “build back better.”

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