Yolanda was one of the worst storms in history, smashing into some of the poorest parts of the country. Though the death toll from the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami was tragically much higher, Yolanda destroyed five times as many houses, 10 times as many schools, displaced nearly twice as many people, and caused far more devastation to local agriculture.
The crisis elicited an urgent response from the government, in coordination with multiple humanitarian agencies. The initial emergency relief effort was conducted amid scenes of utter devastation, but its results are clearly visible 12 months later. Immediate food assistance was delivered to nearly 4 million people and unconditional cash transfers to more than 700,000. Electricity was restored, water supplies reconnected, and disease outbreaks averted by well-coordinated public health and debris-clearing programs.
The Asian Development Bank (ADB) stepped in quickly with a $900 million assistance package including $23 million in grant funding and an emergency assistance loan of $500 million. Also, ADB administers the Yolanda Multi-Donor Trust Fund, established earlier this year as a channel for contributions from bilateral and multilateral institutions and the private sector.
Supported by international agencies including ADB, the government took only weeks to deliver a rebuilding plan, Reconstruction Assistance on Yolanda (RAY); Build Back Better. This laid the groundwork for the 3000-page Comprehensive Rehabilitation and Recovery Plan (CRRP) listing more than 18,000 projects and programs in 171 municipalities and cities across the Yolanda-affected zone.
The CRRP, approved on October 30 by President Benigno Aquino, contains the seeds of a new start for decimated communities. Now the challenge is to implement it without delay. Sadly, there are still too many survivors lacking adequate shelter and livelihoods, who must be helped. The scale of the long-term challenge is vast as well, as we move into a crucial phase of a rebuilding process that could take another three years at least.
Why so long? It’s quite understandable that expectations for rapid rehabilitation often outstrip progress on the ground. But it typically takes years to recover from a catastrophe as severe as Yolanda. The chaotic aftermath of a large disaster can complicate even the best-laid plans. Japan, for example, is still rebuilding after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated large swathes of its northeast.
Long-term recovery from a disaster is divided into three stages. The first is humanitarian relief, to meet immediate needs such as water, food and medical help. This is followed by recovery, involving immediate repairs to shelter and infrastructure. Reconstruction is the final phase, during which towns and cities are rebuilt to pre-disaster standards and ideally better, so they can withstand the next hazard.
Yolanda-affected areas are now shifting from the second phase — recovery —into the third phase. Reconstruction will start in earnest next year, when visible improvements will occur in Yolanda-affected communities. It’s an exciting moment, because we have the opportunity to build back better. This simply means that new housing should be safer and more disaster-resilient, new livelihoods sustainable, and health and education services built in a way that safeguards them from hazards and enhances service delivery. Moreover, infrastructure should be designed to withstand disasters and enable communities to bounce back quickly from them.
Building back better takes time and careful planning. But the Philippines can deliver it. The government has the plans, and building codes, in place; it has the funds, with more than P38 billion released from the 2013 and 2014 budgets for CRRP, and a further P80 billion available in loans and grants from international development agencies; It has enhanced operational capacity — such as the eMPATHY database run by the Office of the Presidential Assistant for Rehabilitation and Recovery which streamlines the planning, screening, tracking and assessment of projects to ensure money is spent wisely and the intended benefits delivered.
But planners should not become so reliant on these systems that overly cautious implementation stymies reconstruction. ADB has learned from past disasters that having a business as usual approach rather than an emergency mindset can delay, and even cripple, effective response.
The response to Yolanda to date has been flexible and focused on delivery. That approach should not only continue; it should be stepped up. Every day should be treated as an emergency until everyone is properly housed, fed, working, and well. ADB will continue to stand by the country until this is complete.
The Philippines must keep the recovery process moving smoothly until the job is done. Building back better from Yolanda won’t erase the pain. But the safer and sustainable communities — it delivers might leave a legacy that will be more lasting.
(Stephen P. Groff is the Asian Development Bank’s vice president for East Asia, Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Follow him on Twitter @spgroff.)