Resolving post-Typhoon Haiyan displacement in the Philippines

It’s been over a year and a half since Typhoon Haiyan—the strongest storm ever recorded over land—wracked the central Philippines. The recovery process has been remarkable: The tent cities housing many of the more than four million who were displaced have been closed, and hundreds of thousands of families are working to rebuild their homes and livelihoods. But according to a new study conducted by the Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement and the International Organization for Migration (IOM)—involving a large household survey, interviews, and focus groups in affected communities—less than 18 percent of the population in hard-hit areas feel that life has returned to normal.

Perhaps this isn’t surprising. Known in the Philippines as Typhoon Yolanda, this storm’s destruction was unmatched, with 7,000 killed and 1.1 million homes damaged or destroyed. Survivors interviewed for the study spoke of their lost children and spouses, the impossibility of making ends meet in an unforgiving post-disaster economy, and their fear of future disasters—a fear that is all too real in a country on the front lines of climate change.

In a region grappling with poverty, unemployment, and other problems, 83 percent of respondents said natural disasters represented their primary source of insecurity, a three-fold increase since before Typhoon Haiyan. One and a half years later, displaced people were still significantly more likely to fear future disasters, to struggle to meet their basic needs, and to lack access to adequate and affordable housing.

Such losses and fears cannot be assuaged in a year or two. Recovering from natural disasters like Haiyan and achieving durable solutions to the displacement crises they generate is an inevitably long-term challenge. It’s a local and national challenge, but it’s also an international one. As experiences in the Philippines, as well as in Haiti, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Nepal, have shown us, disaster recovery and the resolution of displacement affects development trajectories, human rights protection, and, in some cases, peace and security.

Too often, international actors accustomed to responding to displacement crises in conflict contexts assume that post-disaster situations are inherently easier, non-political cases in which resolving displacement is simply a matter of rolling out standard aid packages so that people can return to and rebuild their homes. This assumption can blind international actors to the diverse and complex power dynamics that shape post-disaster political economies and determine who wins and loses in recovery processes. It also overlooks the fact that displacement in post-disaster contexts is not just about the loss of a residence—it’s also about re-establishing livelihoods and preserving social capital in ravaged and dispersed communities where future disasters are an ever-present risk.

Local recovery strategies are best

Filipinos have been particularly successful in tackling this last issue. While a related Brookings-IOM study on durable solutions to displacement caused by the Haiti earthquake found that 98 percent of Port-au-Prince residents felt that social trust had declined since the disaster, almost 78 percent of those surveyed in areas heavily affected by Typhoon Haiyan indicated that trust levels stayed the same in their communities. Almost 65 percent reported that they came together with their neighbors to deal with problems caused by the typhoon. They rebuilt homes and repaired infrastructure, started income-generating projects, and rehabilitated evacuation centers. At its best, international support contributed to this locally-based process, strengthening communities’ own recovery strategies.

The challenge of responding to and supporting recovery from national disasters will almost certainly move up the international agenda in upcoming years as natural disasters associated with the effects of climate change are likely to exact ever greater tolls. As they prepare to meet this challenge, international donors, development agencies, and humanitarians alike would do well to learn from the successes and limitations of the ongoing process in the Philippines.