Life in the Philippines and the cycle of disaster

Typhoon victims wait outside the airport in Tacloban, on the eastern island of Leyte on November 12, 2013 after Super Typhoon Haiyan swept over the Philippines.

The death toll in the Philippines continues to climb. Officials in Tacloban say the death toll in just their city could be as high as 10,000.  The head of the U.N.'s office of humanitarian relief has asked for $300 million as a way to get started with the relief effort.

Obviously there's a long way to go.

But the people there do have experience.  About 20 typhoons a year hit the Philippines. On a list of countries likely to get smashed by natural disasters, the Philippines is way up there.

According to an ominous sounding index called the World Risk Report, the Philippines is the third most at-risk nation in the world, behind only the tiny island nations of Vanuatu and Tonga. 

“It sits right in the typhoon belt and is also exposed to earthquakes as well,” says Michael Beck from the Nature Conservancy, which worked with aid groups and the U.N. University to produce the World Risk Report. He says the Philippines are vulnerable to storm surge and sea level rise. And, it’s got a big and growing population, many of them poor. “This truly is a developing nation with a lot of vulnerable people.”

By some estimates, the regularity of disasters in the Philippines lowers the country’s GDP nearly one percent each year. This storm will likely take a greater toll.  But, the economy has been growing fast and economists doubt the typhoon will slow it down all that much.

Raj Desai is a professor at Georgetown and fellow at the Brookings Institution. He says as the Philippines rebuilds, it’s got to think about the future “The best type of recovery occurs when the global foreign aid community is coordinating on, what is sometimes referred to, as ‘building back better,’” he says. Building back better means building with an eye to the long-term, “rebuilding through job creation, through restoring livelihoods and things like that.”    

A single focus on infrastructure, says Desai, can keep a country vulnerable next time around.

About the author

Adriene Hill is the senior multimedia reporter for LearningCurve.

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