Philippines: The challenge of ‘building back better’

7 February, 2014
4 Feb 2014, Guiuan, the Philippines: Moreto Buenaflor and his family have tried to repair their home with scraps of destroyed buildings and emergency plastic sheets. Their shelter is flimsy and extremely vulnerable to storms and floods. Credit: OCHA/Gemma Cortes
4 Feb 2014, Guiuan, the Philippines: Moreto Buenaflor and his family have tried to repair their home with scraps of destroyed buildings and emergency plastic sheets. Their shelter is flimsy and extremely vulnerable to storms and floods. Credit: OCHA/Gemma Cortes

Typhoon Haiyan destroyed or damaged an estimated 1 million homes across the Eastern and Western Visayas Regions of the central Philippines. Three months on from the devastating storm, the most pressing needs in the affected areas are for durable shelter and the restoration of livelihoods.

“Building back better means that we want to help people rebuild their houses so that they are safer than they were before the Typhoon hit,” explains Timo Luege, a spokesperson for the Shelter Cluster – the group coordinating the work of aid agencies involved in rebuilding homes or establishing temporary shelters.

“We need to do better so that houses are less likely to be destroyed in the next big storm. [But this] does not mean that homes will be ‘typhoon safe’ – we have all seen how the wind and the storm surge even destroyed houses made of concrete.”

In the weeks since the typhoon hit, thousands of families have started repairing their own homes without support from aid groups or local authorities. Too often, this means they are building back worse.

In Guiuan, the town on the south-eastern tip of Samar Province that was the first to take Haiyan’s brunt, Moreto Buenaflor’s five-member family has gathered materials to repair their house. “I have to use salvaged materials such as fallen coconut timber, nails, tarpaulins and old pieces of corrugated iron sheeting found in the debris to repair the house,” he says. “With all the rain we needed a roof urgently.”

Most of the salvaged materials are damaged and are unlikely to withstand a powerful storm.

Resilience is tested

Haiyan, known locally as Yolanda, made seven landfalls when it tore across the central Philippines on 8 November. In some places it reduced almost everything in its path to rubble. More than 14 million people were affected and over 6,200 people were killed according to the Government.

The resilience of the people who survived the storm has been tested many times since that day. Heavy rains have led to new displacements and mudslides and threatened to overturn successful efforts to contain disease outbreaks.
In January, storms associated with a major tropical depression led to the temporary evacuation of 1,400 people from tents and other shelters in Guiuan.

Given all of this, ‘shelter self-recovery’ – the term aid practitioners use to describe the efforts of people like Moreto Buenaflor to rebuild their own homes – is widespread.

A pragmatic approach to safety

In order to make sure that people are not rebuilding in the same way that exposed them so severely to Haiyan, aid groups are providing communities with hands-on training and guidance. This approach, says the Shelter Cluster’s Timo Luege, is driven by pragmatism.

“For example, we are saying that it’s obviously best if you can use hurricane straps to tie down parts of your building. But if you can’t do that, you can use a wire or even a rope, because everything is better than doing nothing,” he says.
“You can even make a difference by putting nails in horizontally rather than vertically. Building back safer is not only a question of money.”

Back in Guiuan, Ignacio Cavos and his family received a shelter kit (a package of supplies including tools, nails and a tarpaulin) and training from the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

“We have never had something like this typhoon in our lifetime,” says Ignacio, posing in front of his family’s rebuilt home. “We feel much safer at home now. I have the impression we are better prepared for future storms.”

Serious funding challenges could hamper recovery

Addressing the enormous need for shelter has proved a monumental task for the government and for the international humanitarian community. Shelter Cluster members have already provided 470,000 families with emergency shelter such as tents and tarpaulins, and supported close to 86,000 households with self-recovery.

But these efforts are being hampered by a looming budget shortfall. Only 44 per cent of the US$788 million that aid agencies need for their planned year-long Haiyan response has been received, according to the OCHA’s Financial Tracking System.

“In one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world, it is critical that we support the Government to ensure people build back better,” said UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator, Luiza Carvalho. “We are already in the recovery phase. Now we need to ensure that the most vulnerable people are not left behind.

“If we act now to help survivors live in a safer environment and regain productive livelihoods, we will secure the great progress the authorities, communities and our partners made in the first months after the disaster,” continued Ms. Carvalho.

“The remarkably resilient Filipino people need and deserve our support.”

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