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After Haiyan - 'building back better' in the Philippines

Coastal fishing was devastated on Leyte and Samar islands (© World Vision)
Coastal fishing was devastated on Leyte and Samar islands
© World Vision

When Typhoon Haiyan ripped through the middle of the Philippines in November 2013, the vast majority of those who lost their livelihoods were farmers. The country is one of the world's largest coconut-product exporters, and has been trying in recent years to boost rice production in order to reduce imports. Sugar plantations were lost and rice warehouses, stockpiled by a government-led rice buying drive, were washed out. Across eastern Samar Island alone, an estimated 15 million coconut palms were destroyed, one-tenth of the country's total stock; this in a region where most livelihoods are connected to the harvesting or processing of coconut products. Some 41,660 hectares of farming land over six provinces were affected by Haiyan, with the damage costing an estimated US$338 million.

When the disaster struck, displacing millions of families, the humanitarian charity World Vision initially prioritised delivery of life-saving aid to the homeless. Now, in early 2014, it is beginning to assess and plan for long-term needs across affected communities and provide specific help for farmers in recovering their livelihoods.

No blanket solutions

World Vision - which has been working in the Philippines for 55 years - decided, after careful consideration, to distribute seeds and tools to farmers for the crucial mid-December rice planting season, which, if missed, would have meant no harvest opportunity until October 2014. Previous disaster-response efforts had suggested that - except in cases of direst emergency - stimulating local markets is a better option, distributing financial aid to farmers so that they can seek out seed, tools, fertiliser from traders and in turn, sustain trade without dependence on aid. "The Philippines has well-developed local economies and markets," says Richard Rumsey, World Vision International's director of disaster risk reduction and community resilience. "Sometimes giving seeds and tools is seen as a blunt instrument. It can be better to let the local market organise those supplies than it is to provide them."

1/10 of the country's total stock of coconut palms were destroyed (© World Vision)
1/10 of the country's total stock of coconut palms were destroyed
© World Vision

However, according to Cesar Bautista, an economic development specialist at World Vision Philippines, there is no blanket recovery plan after Haiyan, with each region needing a tailored approach based on a detailed assessment. Bautista has been working on Panay Island, where he reports that between 80-90 per cent of homes were destroyed, while inland, farmers have lost entire cash crops, including coconut and banana trees. Fortunately, 80 per cent of Panay's rice farmers had completed a harvest before Haiyan hit, making a distribution of rice seed unnecessary. Instead, in the short-term, farmers on other islands will be given vegetable seeds that can be planted year round. Coconut farmers are likely to receive seed because the sector sustained the most comprehensive and long-term damage; coconut trees take up to seven years to mature, so farmers could still be facing a decade of lost income from their land.

Leyte and Samar islands, where coastal fishing and farming were devastated, may have different recovery needs, says Bautista; Leyte's Ormoc City and Tacloban were two of the worst-affected areas. But World Vision has learned that simply donating new boats and nets - as was done after the Asian tsunami - may not be the best approach. In that instance, the devastation kept tourists away, meaning that when fishermen brought their catch to market, there was a vast oversupply and a lack of demand that decimated prices. The charity is distributing some boats and nets to fishermen on Panay Island, but believes that long-term sustainability for both fishermen and farmers is not just about returning to where they were before the disaster. In the case of Haiyan, assessing whether they can diversify their catch or their crops in order to build their resilience is essential.

Building resilience

"It's important to 'build back better' - farmers that live in a place susceptible to natural disasters need to diversify their incomes," says Rumsey. "The Philippines before Haiyan was already a good example of good resilience planning and disaster risk reduction," he adds "because farmers in the coastal regions had already planted some flood-resistant crops that can withstand storm surges and actually flourish when salinated by seawater." World Vision has planted mangroves in coastal Philippines as a natural defence against the regular storm surges and to provide a natural habitat for prawns, fish and crabs, in turn providing employment for fishermen.

Small gardens are simple and effective (© FAO/Bahag)
Small gardens are simple and effective
© FAO/Bahag

Other strategies could come from Haiti, devastated by an earthquake in 2010. Here, given Haitian farmers' inability to invest in sophisticated machinery, the most simple and effective support was the implementation of 'keyhole gardens', circular vegetable beds raised one metre from the ground, supported by a bed of rocks or rubble, and reaching up to two metres in diameter. This small plot, easily planted and tended by one person with little training, is fertilised by organic compost made of household waste, and watered by household wastewater directed by a special system of soil, waste, ash and rocks. The approach, says Kevin Weseni, a co-ordinator at World Vision Haiti, has had a significant long-term impact, helping to develop local communities and promote inter-community trade.

World Vision is at the beginning of planning its long-term recovery response in the Philippines. Those involved, however, know that severe weather events are a part of the annual cycle for farmers to contend with. 'Building back better' means planning to cope with when, not if, another Haiyan will hit.

Written by: Melanie Stern

Date published: January 2014


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