Lessons from Japan: Rebuilding agriculture after disasters

Hazel Tanchuling
Lessons from Japan: Rebuilding agriculture after disasters
resilient livelihoods in a country as extremely affected by climate-related disasters as the Philippines is possible

From March 14-18, countries from all over the world gathered in Sendai, Japan to discuss and adopt a new global framework for disaster risk reduction (DRR), with the current Hyogo Framework for Action on Disaster Risk Reduction (HFA) set to expire this year.  Sendai serves as a perfect backdrop for this conference venue considering that 5 years ago, the city was inundated by tsunami waves with heights of up to 40.5 meters, causing nuclear accidents, killing thousands, and damaging homes and key infrastructure. 

Building back from a disaster of such an enormous magnitude, estimated to be the costliest natural disaster ever, is definitely a task to emulate. The mayor of Sendai, speaking at the conference, has hinted that the success of their disaster recovery efforts very much hinged on the participation of affected communities, along with the availability of necessary resources for rebuilding.

I attended the conference as part of the Oxfam delegation—having been partners with Oxfam in pushing for resilient rural development in the Philippines for many years.

The aim of our delegation is to strategically influence the text of the post-2015 HFA framework, ensuring that the role of underlying vulnerabilities in amplifying disaster impacts is recognized and addressed, and that even greater integration of climate change adaptation is realized in the framework and its implementation mechanisms.

While high-level negotiations are ongoing, I cannot help but zero in on the very sector I represent to try and relate disaster risks reduction and climate change adaptation in agriculture in the Philippines.

Regular disasters in the life of a farmer

Farmers in the Philippines are all too familiar with the concept of disasters.

Agriculture is a risky livelihood – so risky that measures such as rural credit is hard to come by even if private banks in the country are mandated by law to automatically appropriate a portion of their loan portfolio to agriculture.

The reality is that many banks would rather pay the penalties than offer loans to small farmers. The risks faced by farmers reflect the fact that a sudden change in weather, or a particular shock or disaster, can negatively impact production for the whole season, sometimes beyond.

The loss of income caused by a typhoon, for instance, often spells disaster to rural farming households, unable to harvest, unable to repay loans and unable to support their families. Yet this is not inevitable.

Farming can be a livelihood that is able to weather shocks and disasters. Too often, farmers simply don’t have the tools or capacities they need to better prepare for and manage the regular risks they face.  

DRR-CCA in agriculture

It is apparent in discussions in the WCDRR that the challenge of making available climate information, clearly communicating risks and ensuring that everyone understands this information and its local implications, is one shared by communities around the world. Yet such information and understanding is critical to supporting preparedness levels and enabling preventive action, especially at local levels.

For the last 5 years, RWAN has been fostering partnerships with local governments to establish innovative, localized and climate-based early warning systems for agriculture and fisheries as well as promoting resilient and climate-informed communities.

The goal has been to capacitate local governments to localize some of PAGASA’s (the country’s meteorological agency) services, such as local weather observation, risks assessments, and climate impact monitoring and localized farm-weather advisory generation.

A further aim is to ensure dissemination at the local level of PAGASA’s prepared advisories for use in farmer’s seasonal, weekly and sometimes even daily decision making, especially during extreme events.

LOSS. Agricultural workers lose crops and income due to extreme weather brought about by climate change. Photo by Jay Directo/AFP

Farmers and PAGASA

RWAN has been working closely with PAGASA to ensure their forecast products are utilized and given further meaning by local government partners as they analyze potential impacts of weather forecasts on livelihoods and gives appropriate farm management suggestions to help farmers avoid or minimize negative impacts on their livelihoods.

The project also increases the impact of the meteorological agency’s initiatives as it promotes greater use and understanding of their products, increases the number of weather observation facilities nationwide and assists in the assessment of the accuracy of their forecast products..

The initiative resonates with local governments as it empowers them to effectively deliver their mandate which is to deliver frontline agriculture services by virtue of the Local Government Code. They are given direct access to locally generated climate information that they can use to immediately benchmark weather events with impacts – thus enabling them to immediately check their current disaster thresholds.

This becomes of value to farmers because based on project experience, the greater the awareness and sensitization of local governments to climate change and increased climate variability, the greater the likelihood that greater preparedness measures will be put in place to assist local farming constituencies.

Farming techniques

We have seen how local government extension has become more robust and has also improved relationships between local governments and farmers. We have heard local anecdotes about how ordinary women have benefitted from improved climate information as they use it to plan even their household chores, enabling them to save time, money and effort.

The project also proactively teaches farmers, and even fishing communities, through 3-to-4-month sustainable farming measures that are climate appropriate and more weather proof, ultimately resulting in costs savings and environmentally friendly farming approaches. One of the approaches is the the diversified farming system, a biodiversity conservation technique that brings more sources of potential income and food.

Farmers learn hands on through participation in field schools, and by working on a common learning farm. The learning farm usually employs SRI or system of rice intensification, a technology which uses less water and less seeds, varietal seed selection, ecological pest management, organic fertilization, and a variety of income diversification projects using available community resources within the field school.

Risk insurance

Risks insurance is also promoted with farmers and fisherfolk through this work. While reliable climate information is critical, a forecast remains a forecast and is not a perfect science. Thus it also pays to have strong social protection measures, including risk insurance, in place.

I am particularly amazed by Japan’s earthquake insurance experience. While they insure properties and lives with their earthquake insurance, their primary purpose for pay out was to help recover livelihoods, rather than rebuilding houses and buildings, thus speed of pay-out was of the essence.

The panel speaker from Japan noted that satellite images of impacts were enough proof for pay out as long as households were within the affected area. Others submitted self-assessment reports without having been asked to submit additional documentation and validation.

In the case of the Philippines, the pay-out time as well as burden of proof to show damage leaves much to be desired. This has an enormous impact on the wellbeing of subsistence level farmers in the aftermath of disaster. In fact, a local farmer indicated that the onerous and long process ultimately serves a disincentive to secure individual crop insurance unless a farmer receives subsidies from government.


One of the panel speakers in the early warning workshop argued that many disasters are actually preventable. Thus, we argue that if farmers are given access to the multitude of resiliency strategies, then farmers and communities will be better able to adapt, and the impacts and losses from large and small-scale disasters will be minimized. These strategies include the following:

  • Access to localized early warning systems to inform farm level decision making
  • Support for diversified farming systems
  • Access to climate appropriate, and environment-friendly farming strategies that use local resources and knowledge
  • Greater access to risk insurance 

Hence, we can confidently say that resilient livelihoods in a country as extremely affected by climate-related disasters as the Philippines is possible. – Rappler.com

Hazel Tanchuling is the head of secretariat of the Rice Watch Action Network, a group of organizations working individually and collectively to pursue policy changes in rice particularly in the area of trade and the nature of rice farming systems in the Philippines. RWAN is a long time partner of Oxfam in its food, agriculture and climate change advocacy and campaigning, and has pioneered efforts in climate change adaptation in rice farming communities through its Climate Resiliency Field Schools (CrFS). Hazel is currently with Oxfam in Sendai for the World Conference in DRR to help influence Philippine positions in the post-2015 HFA framework, and share her work in helping build and sustain climate-resilient agricultural livelihoods.

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