Super Typhoon Yolanda

[OPINION] ‘Pa-siyam’: Super Typhoon Yolanda 9 years later, and lessons (yet to be) learned

Minh Tran, Albert Salamanca, Ladylyn Lim Mangada, Reinna Bermudez

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[OPINION] ‘Pa-siyam’: Super Typhoon Yolanda 9 years later, and lessons (yet to be) learned
'As negotiations are underway in Sharm el-Sheik, the experiences and lessons learned from Yolanda will inform the deliberations of the parties'

Pa-siyam describes the tradition of praying nine consecutive days for the dead. Its observance brings opportunity to mourn and grieve, as well as reflect and commemorate. In the case of Super Typhoon Yolanda, nine years, not simply nine days, after its onslaught, the anniversary necessitates a moment of reflection and remembrance. What lessons have we learned almost a decade after this climate disaster?

In 2013, the 19th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP19) began with heartfelt prayers to communities in the Philippines that had just been hit by Yolanda, one of the strongest typhoons on record. World leaders and climate activists urged governments to urgently address the escalating climate crisis. 

This year, the anniversary ofYolanda takes place as world leaders are convening for the 27th Conference of Parties (COP27) in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, once again opening the international stage to discuss pressing climate issues that leave communities at risk of suffering losses and damages due to extreme weather events. 

Displaced, resettled, and perpetually precarious 

Just a couple weeks before this year’s commemoration, Tacloban City declared a cholera outbreak with at least 192 cases recorded in the city. Most of the cases were found in Barangay 106, where the source has been traced to a polluted creek and the water processing plant. Barangay 106 is home to resettlement housing projects for those displaced by Yolanda, along with other villages where permanent housing units were constructed in the city.

When the storm struck in 2013, Tacloban was one of the hardest hit areas in the typhoon path. Ninety percent of the city was destroyed, with massive loss of lives and displacement recorded. In the wake of the disaster, the city government initiated large-scale resettlement, moving families from high-risk coastal areas to 40 km north of the city center. Disaster-affected residents, including former informal settlers, were given new permanent housing. Yet, for many, lives and livelihoods remain bleak. 

Access to clean water, for instance, remains a challenge. Earlier this year, during a human rights monitoring visit to four permanent shelter areas in Tacloban, the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) recorded water meters not installed per household, and limited supply of continuous water in the housing units.

The relocation from coastal settlements up north has also moved many people further away from their original sources of income and work. Housing units are also often too small, leading better off families to self-construct extension spaces, thereby exposing neighboring units to structural risks. The COVID-19 pandemic also further exacerbated the precarious living conditions of displaced families. These are just few of the new and continued challenges faced by communities displaced by Yolanda; persistent issues of poverty and safety and security remain present.

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Rights of the relocated and roles of duty-bearers

A survey of 311 displaced households conducted by the CHR and the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) in 2020 found that needs and human rights of displaced people remain unmet and unfulfilled, particularly safety, security, and freedom of movement; adequate standard of living; employment and livelihoods; housing, land, and property; and participation in public affairs. Thirty percent of the respondents found their livelihoods to have worsened, and half found water quality and access to be poor. Further, less than 40% of the households hold ownership documentation for their housing units, with many still insecure about their tenure rights and status.

Evidently, disaster-induced displacement and relocation compromise basic human rights of affected people. Durable solutions are needed to ensure internally displaced persons (IDPs) can fully enjoy their rights while no longer having protection or assistance needs due to displacement. This includes, among others, effective provisioning of basic services for affected families, ensuring land titles and tenure security, and inclusion of displaced people in decision-making.

The human rights issues surrounding displacement in Tacloban City are reflections of serious loopholes in the current legal frameworks. The Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act (RA 10121) must be revised to address human rights issues, particularly in relation to approaching and responding to disaster displacement and institutionalizing an accountability arrangement for duty bearers. 

A human rights-based legislation or policy at the national and local levels on internal displacement could also provide the framework for an inclusive, participatory, and more accountable response to evacuation, recovery, and resettlement.

A finance facility for the most vulnerable

Nine years after its landfall in a nation frequented by an average of 20 disasters each year, Yolanda’s impacts are still felt and lived every day. Its prolonged implications on human rights and livelihoods are examples of losses and damages that communities are experiencing due to climate variability and extreme events. 

Financial resources must extend beyond disaster relief and cater to the needs of those most vulnerable, and address not only economic but also cultural, psychological, livelihood, and other non-economic loss and damage, such as those associated with displacement and resettlement.

Indeed, Yolanda was part of the push that led to the creation of the Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage at COP19. By COP26, the quest for a dedicated fund, however, has not materialized. If we are to learn from the tragic event and the sustained devastation that followed, and uphold the principles of climate justice, a finance facility that puts vulnerable communities at its heart must be realized. 

Reflecting on the Yolanda experience, Dean Antonio La Viña of the Manila Observatory believes that “rebuilding places and restoring lives after a major climate event does not happen automatically, without strategic interventions and sustainable finance. This is where a loss and damage finance facility is relevant and useful. While humanitarian aid after a disaster is needed, it is simply not delivered at the scale and urgency that would result in restitution and restore places and people back or even to a better place where they were not before the climate disaster hit them.”

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Looking ahead

Ahead of COP27, recent reports show a record-high level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, yet current nationally determined contributions (NDCs) are insufficient and not ambitious enough; a system-wide transformation is urgently needed. Crises continue to happen, with Typhoon Odette in December 2021, Typhoon Karding in September 2022, and, during the last week of October, massive flooding across many areas in the Philippines. 

The response in the aftermath of Yolanda and the development efforts that followed to rebuild lives and livelihoods provide rich lessons. Yet, clearly, we have not learned. 

Much of development and critical infrastructures are still being built in places that are exposed to coastal hazards. Access to productive livelihoods continue to be a challenge for the resettled communities. And as shown above, the fundamental human rights of those who suffered from the wrath of the super typhoon remains unfulfilled. 

Catastrophic losses and damages due to the deepening climate crisis will continue unless we act with haste and ambition. 

As negotiations are underway in Sharm el-Sheik, the experiences and lessons learned from Yolanda will inform the deliberations of the parties. It is vital that States set ambitious NDCs and commit to their realization. The creation of financing mechanisms extending beyond climate adaptation and disaster risk reduction to address loss and damage must be set and committed.

Measures need to put front and center the needs, capacities, and human rights of vulnerable communities. Funding must be directly accessible without additional burdens and communities must play key roles as decision-makers every step of the way.

Whether one practices pa-siyam or not, Yolanda’s ninth anniversary is not the end of learning and reflections. It should guide us to end the disproportional vulnerabilities experienced by local communities. Through committed action and robust and rooted policy frameworks, States and stakeholders have the power to ensure there will be no more Yolandas to happen anywhere in the world. –

Minh Tran is a Research Associate at the Stockholm Environment Institute.

Albert M. Salamanca is a Senior Research Fellow at the Stockholm Environment Institute.

Ladylyn Lim Mangada is an Associate Professor in Political Science at UPV Tacloban College.

Reinna S. Bermudez, is Chief of the Center for Crisis, Conflict, and Humanitarian Protection of the Commission on Human Rights.

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