How communities in the Philippines are helping to redefine that ubiquitous humanitarian buzzword ‘resilience’ through cooperation and concrete action as they cope with successive natural disasters.
Esther Vieron, 63, lives in a close-knit fishing community on an isolated part of the West Samar coast in the Philippines, surrounded by mangroves that provide shelter for fish and fishing boats alike.
Despite the community’s entrenched poverty, Vieron remembers a time when even poor people could ‘bounce back’ from a disaster more easily.
“When I was young there was an abundance of food, but climate change and loss of land to construction is making our day-to-day struggle harder,” she says, adding that these days, with more and more ferocious storms and a growing population, it’s getting harder to start over.
“The storm of 1969 was a bad one, it took many lives,” says Vieron, who retired from local politics some time ago, but remains a highly committed and respected Philippine Red Cross community volunteer. “Even so, typhoon Haiyan was the eye-opener for us and Ruby [Hagupit] really scared us because of the constant heavy rain and wind.
“After Typhoon Haiyan, people have been listening to what we tell them,” she says. “I tell them that if we work together we can become more resilient.”
Defining and demonstrating resilience
But what does it mean to be resilient in a country that experiences an average of 20 major tropical storms a year? In international humanitarian circles, the term ‘resilience’ has become a favoured buzzword among donors, humanitarian organizations and development agencies seeking to find better and more proactive ways to reduce the suffering and losses caused by disasters and crisis.
Generally, resilience refers to the ability of people or things to absorb shocks, to be flexible and able to adapt to changing circumstances. In the Philippines, the word for resilience translates literally as ‘bounce back’, a term that is often used after natural disasters.
Since Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, the most powerful storm ever to make landfall, and several other powerful typhoons in 2014, the local definition of resilience has evolved. When speaking of building or enhancing resilience, the Philippine definition now might also include something like this: multiple levels of society working together (on weather monitoring, storm-warning, evacuation plans, better home building, economic initiatives and community awareness, among other things) to strengthen people’s ability to cope with severe shocks.
Following Haiyan, the Philippines government called for a ‘whole-society’ approach in which people and agencies at all levels and in all sectors become involved. The Philippine Red Cross, with support from its in-country Movement partners, is following a similar tack, forging relationships with communities by liaising with local leaders and recruiting, training and equipping volunteers to work with their local recovery committees. This usually involves disaster preparedness training, health initiatives and constructing safer shelters.
The challenge for the National Society and the country as a whole is how to strengthen risk-reduction efforts and make them more consistent in all corners of this geographically and culturally diverse nation. With its network of 100 chapters and thousands of community volunteers, the Philippine Red Cross is already playing a key role.
A working definition
But what does ‘building resilience’ look like? An illustrated dictionary might include, along with its definition, a picture of Philippine Red Cross volunteer Lenita Macavinta-Diego making her daily rounds in Aliputos, a coastal village on Panay Island in Aklan province.
Trained by the Philippine Red Cross to conduct emergency drills, simulations and first-aid training, and to identify safe evacuation centres, such as community halls and two-storey houses, she makes sure that food and medical supplies are stockpiled for emergencies and that the most vulnerable community members are evacuated first. During Haiyan, the volunteers’ actions in Aliputos meant there were no casualties even though all 570 houses were damaged or destroyed.
That typhoon, which made landfall in the Philippines in November 2013, dramatically changed perceptions of how to prepare for and respond to storms. Before Typhoon Haiyan, many people thought little of sitting out a typhoon in their own home and people were often reluctant to evacuate for fear of losing their belongings to looters.
More than a year later, attitudes have changed markedly, say Red Cross volunteers. Even people who in the past refused to evacuate heeded local authorities and sought shelter in designated evacuation centres, usually schools or community halls on higher ground, when alerted about Typhoon Hagupit in December 2014.
Life after Haiyan
In that sense, the Philippine Red Cross’s outreach task has been made a lot easier. Now people pay more attention to the news and official warnings and take pre-emptive evacuations seriously. They stock up with food and they know how to secure their property and livestock well before the storm arrives.
Haiyan was also a hard lesson for emergency responders. The Philippine Red Cross is used to operating in many locations and responding to natural disasters, but coming as it did straight after a major earthquake (Bohol), Haiyan tested the organization’s capacity to the limit and prompted a rethink about future responses.
Eric Salve, head of disaster management services at the Philippine Red Cross, says Haiyan was a wakeup call for the Philippine Red Cross to redouble its community volunteer recruitment efforts. In many of the worst-hit areas, staff and regular volunteers were either affected themselves or cut off and unable to help.
Another factor that has made a difference post-Haiyan is stronger leadership at the provincial and municipal levels. Local governments in some of the coastal provinces have managed to contain injury and loss of life through preparation and evacuation measures.
With Haiyan, the resultant storm surge took thousands of lives because people thought the surge would be similar to past storms. In typhoons Hagupit and Seniang, both of which hit the Philippines in December 2014, loss of life was generally limited to cases in which people ventured out and put their lives at risk.
In the case of Hagupit, early action also played a role. As soon as the country’s lead weather forecasting agency (PAGASA) spotted the storm forming and heading for land, the government swung into action. Storm warnings were issued and well over 1 million people were pre-emptively evacuated. Even though Hagupit destroyed houses and infrastructure, the human cost was far less. Officially, only 18 people died compared with Haiyan’s death toll of 6,300.
But at the community level, disaster risk reduction efforts are still fragile. A lot depends on the calibre of leadership and the willingness of people to participate in exercises like community evacuation drills, clean-ups and initiatives aimed at improving health.
“Haiyan taught us a lot, such as more effective preparation,” Salve says, “but Hagupit reminded us that we still need to fast-track and prioritize recruitment of community volunteers. We need to remember that during a typhoon, everyone is vulnerable and our messages need to get through to the whole community.”
One central theme behind all these efforts is that resilience is not something that can be delivered like a project or a programme. For a community to be truly resilient, changes must be fostered in such a way that they can continued without outside support. They require community buy-in and investment.
This kind of thinking is not new. For many years, the Movement and other humanitarian actors have sought to bring lasting improvement to people’s lives by enhancing local health systems, improving the health of livestock or helping people start small enterprises. Today, however, such efforts are growing in scale, tend to come earlier in the wake of crises and are more often championed under the banner of ‘resilience’.
Even from the onset, humanitarian relief often includes cash-grants or cash cards that allow victims of crisis to make their own decisions (with some restrictions) about what they need most. In theory, this form of assistance can boost the resilience of local markets and bring about recovery more quickly.
Since Haiyan, for example, almost 30,000 households have received cash grants enabling them to earn a living again as part of the Philippine Red Cross’s three-year US$ 360-million recovery plan involving some 500,000 people. Initial data show that farming, rearing livestock and setting up local convenience shops are the top three income-generators for those who have received such support.
This can also be the case during conflict. In addition to emergency assistance, the ICRC, which has long been present in the Philippines due to the ongoing conflict, increasingly includes cash grants, cash cards, provision of tools or machinery, training and microloans as part of a package to help communities attend more quickly and effectively to their own needs.
After fighting broke out in Zamboanga City between a faction of the Moro National Liberation Front and government forces in 2014, some 40,000 people fled their homes. Most of these people found shelter in tents, improvised wood and tarpaulin structures or bunkhouses along the Cawa-Cawa shoreline, or in a local football stadium.
In addition to emergency relief efforts, the ICRC and Philippine Red Cross offered financial support to the neediest in exchange for work (for example, garbage collection in the stadium and along the shoreline) or help with restarting small businesses.
In remote areas of Mindanao and the Visayas, local communities were able to identify their own needs and priorities. “Communities often rely on farming for survival, so we work with them to implement sustainable projects and improve crop yields,” says Alan Colja, the ICRC’s economic security coordinator in the Philippines.
One conflict-stricken community recently decided that it wanted to boost incomes by expanding its cut-flower business, so the ICRC helped it set up a small nursery and provided advice on increasing production. The ICRC trained 560 people in carpentry so they can help rebuild more storm-resistant homes and storm shelters.
2015: the year of resilience?
To some degree, resilience could be considered a re-branding or consolidation of earlier buzzwords — ‘sustainability’, ‘preparedness’, ‘emergency planning’, ‘risk-reduction’ and ‘economic security’ — in a way that satisfies humanitarian organizations and development agencies. The beauty of the term is that its inclusiveness allows for buy-in from people with diverse interests. The downside is that resilience can mean almost anything — another catchy slogan used opportunistically for almost any agenda.
For its part, the IFRC has long made the case to development and humanitarian donors that disaster preparedness and risk-reduction efforts in disaster-prone areas are absolutely essential to meeting post-2015 Millennium Development Goals.
Now at the global level, momentum is gathering around this concept as more organizations and high-level players align and push for greater investment in risk prevention, and by extension, promotion of more resilient communities as a way of reducing government expenditures over the longer term.
In an article published to coincide with the tenth anniversary of the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA), a risk-management plan adopted by the United Nations a decade ago following the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Margareta Wahlström, the United Nations Secretary General’s Special representative for Disaster Risk Reduction, calls for resilience “to be the hallmark of 2015.” She makes a case for participating governments to revise the HFA to take account of climate change, urban sprawl and rapid population growth.
“It is time for the world to embed resilience… into the industrialization process and the development of towns and cities, accounting for factors like seismic threats, flood plains, coastal erosion and environmental degradation,” she writes.
In March, when the third international conference on disaster risk reduction convened in Sendai, Japan, one goal was to update the HFA.
After 30 hours of negotiations, consensus was finally reached on the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, which lays out a 15-year strategy and “opens a new chapter in sustainable development as it outlines clear targets and priorities for action, which will lead to a substantial reduction of disaster risk,” according to Wahlström.
1 billion strong
Representatives of 42 National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the IFRC took part in the conference, where they called for greater action towards building community resilience. The way to do that, they argued, is by ensuring sustainable access to water and sanitation, investing in public awareness and education, supporting effective disaster-preparedness systems, and developing stronger building codes and other laws to reduce risks and ensure swift response during crisis, among other actions.
They also called attention to the recently launched ‘One Billion Coalition for Resilience’, an initiative to scale up community and civic action on resilience over the next ten years, “so that it is owned, led and carried out by people themselves to bring about lasting change in their communities”, according to IFRC President Tadateru Konoé. The coalition’s goal is to engage at least one person in every household around the world in active steps towards enhancing community resilience.
Given the global and local reach of the Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteer network, National Societies are at the heart of this grass-roots resilience revolution. For those looking for a working model, the Philippines may offer a case in point if the ‘whole-society’ approach proves to be effective over time and the concrete resilience actions promoted by the Philippine Red Cross and others become truly embedded in local communities throughout this diverse, island nation.
By Kate Marshall
Kate Marshall is an IFRC communications specialist based in Manila.
After natural disaster strikes, it is often the resilience of local communities, which shoulder the greatest burden in rebuilding their homes, lives and livelihoods, that makes the greatest difference. As part of a global Movement initiative called the One Billion Coalition for Resilience, the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement has called on all stakeholders “to engage and support” efforts to strengthen community resilience in concrete and systematic ways.
Photo: ©Rommel Cabrera/IFRC
“It is time for the
world to embed
process and the
towns and cities,
factors like seismic
United Nations Secretary
Disaster Risk Reduction,
recent article entitled
The yearof resilience.
After Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, many coastal villages such as this one were torn apart by high-force winds and rising sea waters. Rebuilding communities to withstand the storms and developing warning and evacuation systems are part of making communities more resilient to disaster.
Photo: ©Rommel Cabrera/IFRC
In the wake of successive typhoons, the Philippine Red Cross and Movement partners have supported programmes that help local people get back into business — as fishermen, farmers, builders and many other professions.
Photo: ©Rommel Cabrera/IFRC
Haiyan, people have
been listening to
what we tell them. I
tell them that if we
work together we
can become more
Esther Vieron, 63,
Some of the workers at this joint Philippine Red Cross and IFRC shelter construction project in Tabontabon will move into the shelters they are working on. Most beneficiaries are expected to contribute labour to build their house if they are able. This kind of ‘sweat equity’ contribution also fosters a sense of local ownership, an important part of any resilience-building effort.