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Building Back Better? Not Yet: Tacloban nearly three years after Typhoon Yolanda

Written by Pauline Eadie.

On 8 November 2013 super typhoon Yolanda (international name Haiyan) hit the Philippines. Yolanda was the strongest typhoon ever to make landfall. The typhoon left vast areas of the Pacific facing Eastern Visayas region in complete disarray. Well over 6000 people died (the final death toll will probably never be known) and the vast landscape of the typhoon ravaged area was left looking like a war zone. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster communication was cut and survivors faced a desperate search for food, water and shelter. A significant international relief effort swung into action. Governmental and non-governmental agencies flooded the region with relief goods, medical, logistical and military personnel, rehabilitation training and goodwill.

November 2016 will mark the three-year anniversary of the typhoon. As part of the ESRC/DFID funded project, ‘Poverty Alleviation in the Wake of Typhoon Yolanda’, our team has been travelling regularly to Leyte in the Eastern Visayas to monitor the progress of the reconstruction. Tacloban City, the epic centre of the disaster, has been our primary focal point.  Our first visit was nine months after the disaster in August 2014. Reconstruction work was in full swing. The air was heavy with the smell of new paint and freshly sawn wood. However, people were still living in tent cities and were only just emerging from the shock of the disaster. Yolanda brought with it a storm surge that reached nearly 20 feet in places, a tsunami by any other name, and many survivors had seen their loved ones, houses and possessions swept away. Every evening an eerie quite descended over town. Partly as a result of still limited electricity for street lighting and reduced public transport. But also because ghosts loomed large in the imagination of the locals.

Two years later Tacloban is back on its feet. Public and private buildings have been repaired and infrastructure is undergoing a process of regeneration. New shops and eateries have sprung up, the iconic Sto. Nino church and the nearby  Palo Cathedral have been beautifully repaired and the area is a hub of activity. Celebrities, as diverse as the Pope, Princess Anne, David Beckham and Justin Bieber, have all come to the region to offer support. However, if you scratch the surface it is not hard to find evidence that a catastrophic event took place here. Here and there substantial buildings have been left to the elements, their walls still blown out and what is left of their roofs hanging precariously. But in places some of these houses and structures, abandoned by the former owners, have been taken over and haphazardly reconstructed by those who have simply nowhere else to go. Many of these buildings are in what is now known as the ‘no dwell zone’. But people do dwell there, often in hastily reconstructed shanty houses, sometimes on stilts right over the sea. The local government is powerless to move them as there is nowhere to move them to.

A substantial relocation programme is underway in North Tacloban in order to move coastal dwellers to safer areas. However, of the target units (houses), 13,165 to be built by the National Housing Authority and 15,794 by INGOs/NGOs, only 1028 and 2028, respectively, have been completed and occupied. The building of permanent shelters has faced a catalogue of problems, including procurement and contractual issues, however one of the main problems facing the new settlements is lack of water. This week a householder told us that 25 litres per day is delivered to every occupied household, this is well below the level needed for health and well being. There is no piped water and standpipes are urgently needed.

Residents across Tacloban are also in dire need of livelihood. Those that have been relocated often face a long and expensive (in local terms) journey to their place of employment in town. Livelihood opportunities are scarce in the new communities and tend to operate on the basis of bare subsistence. In the original coastal communities, job opportunities are also scarce. The livelihood and training programs organised by the government and NGOs have had little success as scaled up business concerns. Locals have tended to resort to traditional occupations such as running sari-sari stores, fishing, cooking stalls and pedicab driving. Life is often not much easier for those that have permanent salaried positions. Local government employees in Tacloban that earn over 18, 000 PHP per month were barred from receiving the Emergency Shelter Assistance (ESA) allowance from the national government. This meant that they had to fall back on their own resources to rebuild. Many of them have been forced to take out significant loans, leaving little for them to live on. This is the reality they face for the next ten years.

Meanwhile local and regional politicians are making a concerted effort to bring business to the region. The area is rich in natural resources but suffers from the ‘tyranny of distance’ from Manila and international markets. Tacloban has no deep water port and its airport is not currently of an international standard. Goods leaving the region face a convoluted journey by sea, around the numerous islands of the central Philippines to reach their destination. There is no local ice plant so the high value fish caught in local waters cannot be exported.

Three years after Yolanda Tacloban is ‘building back’, but whether it is ‘building back better’

remains to be seen. The area enjoyed a bubble in its economy as a result of all the activity associated with the aftermath of a disaster. Now the hard work has really begun for Tacloban as it is forced to stand on its own two feet. INGOs and NGOs have mostly moved on to the next disaster and the government is having to take responsibility for the completion of outstanding programs. However, Yolanda has reduced many locals to penury. Many also live in housing that is substandard and unsafe. A significant section of the population is un- or under-employed.

This begs the question: at what stage can relief agencies consider their work done? When lives are saved and relief goods are doled out? The next step for Tacloban must be the scaling up of industry and employment opportunities but it will be private investors and good management that drive this process forward, not charity.

 Pauline Eadie is an Assistant Professor in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham. She is Primary Investigator of the ESRC/DFID funded project ‘Poverty Alleviation in the Wake of Typhoon Yolanda’. You can follow this project on Facebook as Project_Yolanda and Twitter @Project_Yolanda. Image credit: Author provided.

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