I've just spent a month in the Philippines enjoying countless picture-perfect beaches and their unbelievably rich and varied marine life, and the equally gorgeous mountain villages in northern Luzon with their proud people and fascinating Igorot culture.
During my travels, I got a chance to interview many victims of last year's Haiyan (locally dubbed Yolanda) typhoon, as well as last month's Hagupit (Ruby) and the most recent Jangmi (Seniang) typhoon, which swept across the country as we prepared to welcome the new year.
People I spoke with -from different regions- say they have seen disasters become more frequent and more severe over the last couple of decades. I found no evidence of climate deniers nor of climate ignorance. Climate is a huge topic here and is openly discussed. So the foundation to tackle the issues is there - great.
Aid efforts have also been considerable: After Haiyan for instance, money, medicines and food donations flooded in from within the Philippines as well as from the international community, while a plethora of NGOs worked with local authorities, the army and the government to provide on the ground support to tackle some of the more short-term issues (e.g. rebuilding bridges, clearing roads, enabling water and power access..) as well as longer-term issues (e.g. reskilling coconut growers whose plantations have been destroyed so they can earn a living during the 10 years it will take for their newly planted coconut trees to grow).
But coordination of these efforts leaves a lot to be desired. For instance, many told me that there was a huge concentration -and duplication- of relief efforts around Tacloban (where Haiyan hit hardest), while other areas hit by the typhoon got no support at all. This was the case of some friends we made in Coron, who, after Haiyan, found themselves having to clear their own roads, function without electricity for 4 months… and whose neighbors are more often than not still missing parts of their homes that got blown away by Haiyan, which they lack the money to rebuild.
As I work in reinsurance, this led me to ask… What about insurance? Sadly, my question frequently just provoked laughter. The story was the same everywhere I asked: Most people can't afford property insurance (and the policy would most likely be more expensive than the bamboo houses many live in anyway). For those running businesses and who can afford insurance, overwhelmingly I was told they've stopped buying it because 'they never pay when disaster strikes'. So business owners need to put money aside for the reconstruction efforts they need to finance after every disaster… And this with growing frequency due to climate change.
I was then told about the Red Cross being denied access to Coron for a whole month (the Red Cross was offering medication for free that local officials were allegedly selling at a profit), of hospitals being closed during the worst of the crisis, of relief money and food aid never reaching the populations they were intended for… Everywhere I went, I encountered reports of wide-scale corruption across the country, which thwart efforts to rebuild and bounce back from catastrophes fast.
And let's be clear, this isn't just happening in the Philippines: Extreme weather triggers an infusion of reconstruction cash from federal, state and local governments, which a corrupt official can embezzle or bestow on the highest briber. The U.S. government estimates that FEMA was defrauded to the tune of between $600 million and $1.4 billion in its support for communities damaged by 2005’s Katrina and 2006’s Rita (http://www.northwestern.edu/newscenter/stories/2014/03/opinion-tpm-sorensen-natural-disasters.html ).
With natural catastrophes becoming more frequent and more severe, corruption in disaster relief needs to be tackled not just to ensure that aid gets to where it's most needed effectively and fast, but also so that it finances the right reconstruction and resilience building projects that will better prepare us for future crises.
I'm thinking digital technologies could help. What about you? Do you know of good ways to lower the incentives to corruption in disaster relief? And what about micro-insurance schemes in the area? Please send so I can share with my new filippino friends! :)
Category: Climate/natural disasters: Climate change, Disaster risk, Floods/storms, Resilience