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Filipino Delegate Gives the West a Powerful Message About Preventing the Next Typhoon Haiyan

The Philippines is no stranger to natural calamities. It stands as the third-most vulnerable country to climate change, with an average of eight to nine typhoons hitting the country every single year. And since 2011, the Southeast Asian archipelago has been hit by at least three super typhoons, with December 2012’s Typhoon Bopha (Pablo to Filipinos) claiming as many as 1,900 lives and exacting $1 billion in economic damages. But category 5 — the highest level -— super typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda to Filipinos) was one of the strongest recorded storms in human history, and in the words of the The Economist, it was a “perfect storm in terms of its sheer size, its circular symmetry and the tightness of its eye.” So upon its landfall in the Philippines on November 8, Haiyan was utterly destructive, leaving certain coastal communities and cities in the central islands of Visayas in complete ruins.

Given the unprecedented scale of destruction, with initial estimates suggesting as high as 10,000 casualties and $14 billion in economic costs, the world’s attention has been focused on the Philippine government’s response to the crisis. The combination of the collapse of basic infrastructure, the literal decimation of local government units (LGU) in places such as Tacloban City, and the national government's limited capacity has led to scenes of desperation, chaos, and outrage throughout many affected areas, with the Benigno Aquino administration bearing the brunt of criticisms. The bigger issue, however, is climate change, brought about by the industrialized world’s centuries of unrestrained carbon-dioxide emissions and exacerbated by the ongoing deadlock in climate negotiations, with developing countries such as the Philippines footing the bill. No one knows this better than Filipinos themselves.

Of course, during the course of the storm the Philippine government has had its own share of shortcomings, prompting renowned journalists such as CNN’s Anderson Cooper to lash out at local authorities’ purported failure to respond in a timely and effective manner. Despite several early warnings and the evacuation of up to 800,000 people from vulnerable areas ahead of Haiyan’s landfall, reports suggest that many LGUs were perhaps left to their own devices, and there was little coordination between the national government and local authorities in places such as Samar and Leyte. 

Critics have also raised issue with the national government’s inability to undertake more decisive measures ahead of the storm, ranging from the mandatory evacuation of most vulnerable groups, especially coastal communities and shantytowns, to building bunker houses, which are large enough to host thousands of refugees, and using advanced technology to maintain communication channels with local authorities once telephone lines and electricity posts are struck down. In places such as Tacloban City, where thousands of shantytown and coastal community residents bore the brunt of a super storm, the national government was left totally in the dark hours into Haiyan’s landfall.

There were also structural challenges that undermined the Philippine government’s response. Despite years of impressive economic growth, there has been minimal investment in infrastructure, while the armed forces, especially the Philippine Air Force (PAF), has been a chronically underfunded, neglected institution. This proved to be a major problem once Haiyan hit far-flung islands and rural areas, where the basic infrastructure is either non-existent or has been in desperate need of maintenance and development. The PAF was ideally the government’s best hope for swiftly aiding the victims, but it only had three C-130 military planes to dispatch to affected areas.

The UN office in Manila, almost a day into Haiyan’s landfall, told Bloomberg news that many communities remained inaccessible and in desperate need of food, water, and medicine, due to the massive destruction of basic infrastructure. True, for years the Aquino administration has sought to tackle the infrastructure issue by introducing a dozen major Private-Public Partnership (PPP) projects to improve the country’s resilience to natural disasters and boost the economy. But corruption, mismanagement, and regulatory uncertainty have heavily undermined his infrastructure plan, with no major project expected to finish before 2015.

Though recent days have seen an improvement in aid delivery, with the international community and allied nations augmenting the government’s relief operations, the whole episode laid bare the limited capacity of weak states such as the Philippines to handle the ever-destructive impact of climate change. No wonder Naderev "Yeb" Sano, the Philippine representative at the recently held COP 19 climate negotiations in Warsaw, was once again in tears, pleading with industrialized and industrializing countries to decrease their CO2 emissions and help poorer, vulnerable countries such as the Philippines to adapt to the growing frequency of natural disasters.

For many Filipinos, more than pledges of aid and logistical support for humanitarian relief, what's important is for the developed world and major emerging economies to require cuts to their emission levels and fast track the $100 billion “climate fund,” which is crucial to the capacity-building of vulnerable countries such as the Philippines. The most recent calamity in the Philippines was, above all, a wake-up call for the international community, underscoring the need for major economies to stop dragging their feet on climate negotiations and face climate change head on. 

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