Richard Javad Heydarian Headshot

Philippines' Haiyan Tragedy: What Went Wrong?

Posted: Updated:

In the words of The Economist, it was a "perfect storm in terms of its sheer size, its circular symmetry and the tightness of its eye." The category 5 -- highest level -- super typhoon Haiyan, known as Yolanda to Filipinos, was one of history's strongest recorded typhoons, shattering coastal communities in central Philippine islands of Visayas and completely inundating local government units (LGU) in places such as Tacloban City. The scale of destruction left many authorities, lucky enough to survive the storm's landfall, wondering where to begin, given the almost total destruction in certain areas -- prompting some to go as far as suggesting mass evacuation from severely affected areas.

Initial estimates claimed as high as 10,000 casualties, $14 billion in total economic damages, and 2.5 million people in urgent need of humanitarian relief. By any measure, this was one of the darkest days in the country's recent memory. Given the sheer extent of devastation, with many surviving victims sharing their harrowing stories of struggle and loss before the local and global media, the whole Philippines has been swept by a wave of sorrow. But perhaps outrage and frustration are also echoing in the chambers of every single Filipino's soul.

In moments of national crisis, the state -- holding monopoly on the legitimate use of force and the collective resources of the society -- is supposed to be the first and ultimate source of refuge, providing relief, rehabilitation, and rule of law in affected areas under its jurisdiction. For many critics, the state fell short of fulfilling its most fundamental responsibilities, since thousands of survivors, reports suggest, struggled with hunger, chaos, and disease days into Haiyan's landfall. As helplessness and despair gripped badly affected communities, the Aquino administration bore the brunt of local and international criticism.

Beyond the frenzy of opprobrium directed at seating officials, however, a more nuanced understanding of the Philippines' structure of governance suggests how a combination of a weak state, long time neglect of basic infrastructure, and chronic underinvestment in the armed forces explains the absence of a swift and effective response to the crisis. And this is why Manila had to rely on the goodwill of dozens of foreign nations as well as international agencies to step up its relief operations in affected areas. But above all, the whole episode has laid bare the injustice of how developing countries have been increasingly footing the bill for climate change.

Aquino's Toughest Test

After years of enjoying consistently high approval ratings, and receiving global acclaim for his anti-corruption agenda that has partly spurred the recent economic uptick in the Philippines, President Benigno Aquino III is facing his moment of truth.

Weeks before Haiyan's landfall, Aquino confronted a spate of corruption scandals, which initially implicated a number of high-profile opposition members, but over time evolved into a wholesale repudiation of the Philippine state's existing fiscal allocation practices as well as accusations of bribery and corruption against Aquino and his allies. Outraged and half-shocked, the Filipino president lashed out at his critics, reiterating his claim to absolute moral integrity and dismissing all accusations as a cynical ploy to undermine ongoing investigations against opposition stalwarts. To put it simply, the Philippine political scene was a total mess. And this perhaps explains why he was quite defensive in his interview with CNN's Christian Amanpour regarding the national government's response to the crisis.

Aquino began by telling Amanpour that "emotional trauma" may have prompted some officials to magnify casualties, which he believed was closer to 2,000-2500 victims rather than the initial 10,000 estimate. He went on defending his government's response, characterizing it as "reassuring" to the vast majority of the affected people, while partially absolving his administration of any blame by arguing how the local governments are primarily responsible for initial relief and disaster response operations. He also emphasized how the national government was responsible for the evacuation of many vulnerable communities (e.g., Cebu and Bohol), which contributed to minimal-to-none casualties in many areas hit by Haiyan.

Aquino's overarching argument was that the national government did the best that it could within the confines of its constitutional responsibility as well as institutional capacity, but the sheer strength of the typhoon was just too overwhelming.

Ahead of the storm's landfall, the government claims to have evacuated up to 800,000 people from vulnerable areas, while constantly issuing warnings to and coordinating efforts with various LGUs, especially in places such as Cebu and Bohol, which were hit by an earthquake earlier this year. On the other hand, the Philippine state, since the 1990s, has been undergoing a process of administrative decentralization in an effort to empower LGUs and enhance their political autonomy, partially clipping the national government's wings and reducing the extent of its jurisdiction outside the National Capital Region (NCR).

But for many critics, the national government should have been even more proactive and vigilant, given the relative underdevelopment of LGUs and precisely because of the rising intensity of natural calamities due to climate change.

The country is no stranger to natural calamities, standing as the third-most vulnerable country to climate change, with an average of 8 to 9 typhoons hitting the Philippines every single year. The government, critics argue, could have undertaken more decisive measures ahead of Haiyan's landfall, knowing how powerful, unpredictable, and disastrous it could get. For instance, it could have (i) implemented mandatory evacuation among most vulnerable areas, especially shantytowns and coastal communities, (ii) built bunker houses to shelter people fleeing the storm, and (iii) utilized advanced technologies to maintain communication with local authorities even when telephone cables and electricity lines are struck down by super typhoons.

Structural Vulnerability

But to better understand the government's relatively week and delayed response to the crisis, one should look at other consequential factors. Despite emerging as one of Asia's economic bright spots, with annual GDP growth hovering around 6-7% in recent years, the Philippines' infrastructure has been in desperate shape. Outside the industrialized regions in the northern island of Luzon, most communities are yet to enjoy access to reliable electricity, roads, bridges, ports, and other basic infrastructure. In other areas, the existing infrastructure lacks quality, scale, and optimal maintenance, and yet the country has had one of the lowest rates of infrastructure spending in the region.

The development of the infrastructure landscape was initially a cornerstone of Aquino's economic strategy, but a combination of corruption, regulatory uncertainty, and mismanagement has delayed his Private-Public Partnership (PPP) projects, which, at the very earliest, are supposed to come on stream in 2015.

The other chief structural weakness of the Philippine state is its armed forces, especially the Philippine Air Force (PAF), which is yet to refurbish its small fleet of antiquated aircrafts. Lack of strategic foresight, overreliance on external partners, and chronic corruption has deprived the PAF and other branches of the armed forces of much-needed funds to modernize and enhance its capacities.

When Haiyan hit coastal communities and far-flung areas, the infrastructure was easily destroyed, while the PAF only had 3 C-130 aircrafts to dispatch to affected areas. Other areas remained completely inaccessible, since there was hardly any infrastructure to speak of. This proved to be a major setback for relief operations.

So to begin with, the Philippine state, regardless of the political will of its officials in the run up to or the immediate aftermath of a natural calamity, suffered from a profound capacity deficit. And it is far from certain how the Aquino administration -- or the succeeding leaderships for that matter -- is going to redress such inherent maladies in the structure of governance in the country.

But for many, the bigger issue remains to be climate change, and how archipelagic countries such as the Philippines are paying the price for centuries of relentless economic expansion by industrialized countries, compounded by the economic boom among major emerging markets, which have come to rival the U.S. in greenhouse gas emission. And this explains why Philippine climate negotiators were once again in tears this year, pleading global leaders to implement decisive measure to mitigate climate change and assist vulnerable countries such as the Philippines.

Despite the inherent vagaries of climate science, which deals with complex and often unpredictable variables, leading scientists, and IPCC contributors, such as Professor James Hansen of Columbia University and Professor Piers Forster of Leeds University have drawn a connection between climate change and extreme weather events such as Haiyan.
So far, the world's leading polluters have avoided mandatory measures to mitigate the impact of climate change, and it is far from clear whether there will be any concrete climate deal before 2020. Moreover, the proposed $100 billion climate fund, which is supposed to help poorer countries to adapt to climate change, is heavily underfunded.

In the end, it will take a conscientious effort by both the international community, especially great powers, as well as Filipino leaders to prevent such devastating crises and cope with the impact of climate change.