Currently showing: Climate/natural disasters > Climate change

11 Jan 15 10:05

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 ( ).

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

Location: Philippines


Rosa Dominguez - 11 Jan 2015, 11:37 a.m.

Hi, I do not know of ways of tackle corruption...I think corruption runs at all levels not only with disaster relief resources...those more deprived and more in need are always the ones more affected and probably the ones that would consider even the micro-insurance policy an excess..., and I also think that managing the coverage and getting the insurance support system to work and that level and such resource deprived areas would not be easy...

Alicia Montoya - 11 Jan 2015, 1:07 p.m.

Yeah, I wondered why nobody seemed to have microinsurance... I did see a couple of microfinance banks but I was surprised to see so little...

As for distribution, agree: Getting it to the right people can be tough but one can use local organizations and NGOs...

But I'm thinking technology could be a much better tool, enabling automatic payouts via mobile phones / mobile banking... Everybody seemed to have phones with facebook! :D

Karthik Sampath - 11 Jan 2015, 2:12 p.m.

Technology can come to the rescue. See my earlier post on India's Unique Identification Program which captures biometric data of citizens which means no one loses their identity even if they have lost paper proofs.

Unique biometric ids will also allow transparency in the entire system and insurers can disburse claim payouts without undue delay.

Regina Berens - 13 Jan 2015, 3:21 p.m.

Thanks for this first-hand experience! I'm planning on taking a class on Disasters in the Anthropology department of our local community college starting next week and am really looking forward to getting some insights on how to provide lasting help and prevent future disasters.

Alicia Montoya - 15 Jan 2015, 6:25 a.m.

Thanks for the reminder about Aadhaar, Karthik. This is definitely a great step towards thwarting some of the failures in aid distribution that we're seeing today.

As I (re)read through some of the links you provided, two things struck me:
1) I agree with Gilles' point that (at least some) corruption will find a way around this system. But I still believe biometric IDs are a good step and can help avoid some of the abuses and also help better distribute aid.
2) I was surprised to read so much about privacy concerns. Specifically the claim that the US had set up an aid program merely to map the Sudanese seemed a little far-fetched. But maybe I'm just being naive?

I've been looking at how digital can help in the full cycle of disaster management. From disaster prevention (e.g. the data mining of social media to identify and hopefully prevent disasters -this has proven doable in the case of US school shootings, for instance-), to disaster management (as was used during Haiti and Katrina to match needs with disaster relief efforts).

In any case, this is a fascinating field which I believe holds much potential in helping bring order and efficiency in the chaos that disaster throws communities into. Read more in and I'd welcome any other such blogs/resources/influencers dealing specifically with how to use digital in the case of disasters.


Alicia Montoya - 15 Jan 2015, 6:32 a.m.

Fascinating course, Regina! I'm looking into researching this, as it builds on my academic background (in economics, anthropology and digital media), and applies to my work now at Swiss Re. Very cool field of study! Tell me more about your course, please :)

Alicia Montoya - 17 Jan 2015, 5:45 a.m.

**UPDATE** I just woke up to find a BBC story in which Pope Francis, who is currently visiting Tacloban to speak to typhoon victims, is said to have spoken about the "Christian duty to break the bonds of injustice and oppression which give rise to glaring, and indeed scandalous, social inequalities". He called on the country's leaders to end the "scandalous social inequalities" and corruption in the Philippines:

Let's not forget that, a year later, around one million people remain homeless after the devastating typhoon, which remains the strongest storm ever recorded on land: As a reminder, Haiyan created a 7m (23ft) high storm surge, destroying practically everything in its path when it swept ashore on 8 November 2013. Around 90% of the city of Tacloban in Leyte province was destroyed and more than 14.5 million people were affected in six regions and 44 provinces.

I hope that the Pope's words will help curb some of the corruption practices that take place in this country that is ~80% Catholic, and that the victims of the typhoon who still remain homeless will finally get help. The same happened after Katrina, where 4 years later, nearly 12,000 people remained homeless in New Orleans.

Alicia Montoya - 17 Jan 2015, 6:34 a.m.

**UPDATE 2** In a perverse coincidence, a new typhoon is headed to Tacloban, making landfall precisely during the Pope's mass, which has been cut short because of it

Anish Jacob Vadakkedath - 17 Jan 2015, 10:33 a.m.

The subject is quite engaging - thanks to Alicia for kick-starting the topic, and sharing a lot of insights about this.

One does not know about the history of organized disaster relief - maybe the beginning might have been by organizations like Red Cross, but this would have become more widespread as more and more countries embraced democracy in the 20th century.

The effects of increased population and over-exploitation of natural resources seems to have turned the climatic conditions topsy-turvy. The end result is many natural disasters of increasing frequency and intensity. The situation is further worsened by people / asset concentration in certain locations, especially port cities.

As a consequence, the quantum of relief funds are quite large - the intended recipients of such funds are in a desperate situation, thus presenting golden opportunities for those who are ready to exploit the situation.

I still remember the incidents in the 1970's, where my home state of Kerala would be subject to sea erosion, and the entire chain of activities including disaster relief as well as constructing the seawall would be a gold mine for those officials involved in the work. Someone in the know once commented that seawall construction is the only business which gives assured 1000% profit!

The link between environmental degradation, natures fury and corruption is brought out well in this 2012 article:

Coming to the other point about digital technology being used in disaster cycle management; yes, this will be a great enabler, as the government or the insurers can ensure that the money reaches the intended beneficiary without passing through roadblocks created by vested interests.

However, at the time of a disaster, the most important thing is to ensure that food, medicines and clothing are available locally and the money serves no immediate purpose as the stock of such items in these locations would have been damaged in the disaster.

How are we going to ensure corruption-free delivery of such physical items in the immediate aftermath? A point to ponder.

Once the immediate things are taken care of, then the reconstruction phase starts. In this stage, the traditional official channels usually prove to be too slow (and costly) for the ground realities. Say house reconstruction and debris disposal which requires the permission of various bodies which takes a couple of months. In such an instance, digital technologies should be able to help in speeding up the process of granting the necessary permissions and approvals by the higher authorities, who can even bypass the normal official channels as and when required.

Gavin Montgomery - 18 Jan 2015, 9:19 a.m.

The New Yorker has a fascinating piece on corruption here:

It not only deals with how corruption may be addressed, but touches on how a certain level of corruption can actually be beneficial. That suggests that the issue is not so much how to fix the state, but rather how to realign incentives for corrupt officials.

Ngugi wa Thiong'o explores this issue beautifully in Wizard of the Crow:

Alicia Montoya - 18 Jan 2015, 10:56 a.m.

Thanks, Anish.

You make a very good point about the difference between immediate and long-term needs. And sadly both are subject to abusive practices.

I guess all the issues need to be tackled in parallel, using a mixture of top-down and bottom-up approaches including:
- microinsurance & microfinance: to help people build self-sustaining wealth and bounce back when disaster strikes
- sovereign risk pooling: to help governments get the economy and citizens get back up and running when a region gets hit by disaster
- anti-corruption measures: to help curb some of those practices so less of the money and goods get siphoned out of the economy.

I'm thinking digital could help NGOs go straight into the communities in need with the items and services needed, effectively squeezing out the middle-man who might engage in corrupt practices. Can we assume NGOs are not corrupt?

Your article on Kerala is a little concerning, especially the risk of nearby dams given the recorded increase in seismic activity following the mass quarrying. The (brilliant) New Yorker article Gavin shares below on corruption perhaps sheds some light on the complexities of the issue and offers some measures that can be taken to disincentivize some of those practices.

This is by no means an easy one!

Alicia Montoya - 18 Jan 2015, 11:24 a.m.

I love that book! :) In the context of this discussion, I love how humanely and matter-of-factly it shows the extent with which corruption is engrained in that not-so-fictitious country.

As the (brilliant!) New Yorker article you share highlights, corruption is a reality in all countries, it just takes different forms. I was surprised they didn't try correlate corruption and GDP. I'd say it's easier not to have to steal when you're rich (explaining why the Norwegians in the story all had flawless records).

I remember when Giuliani's team was hired to try deal with Mexico's corruption, a key measure proposed was to raise police officers' salaries, as USD 700/month isn't enough to survive so officers needed to complement their meagre wages via "mordidas" ("bites", i.e. cuts)

But I guess it depends how we define corruption: Do the millions of "campaign donations" to US political parties by multinationals count? If so, clearly rich countries like the US would come out as far more corrupt than others in Transparency International's ranking...

The more I think about how to disincentivize abuses (and let's face it, Hobbes was right: Homo homini lupus), the more I go back to the division of power that is the bedrock of our so-called democracies. In recent years, power has been accumulating, and with it, comes the possibility to abuse the system. I'm eager to hear ideas about how digital or other practices can help divide and spread out power, and hopefully eliminate many of the middle men/women who stand in a position to benefit from their positions of power and are thus incentivized into corruption.

Andreas Schraft - 22 Jan 2015, 2:54 p.m.

Hi Alicia, thank you for this story which is uplifting and sad at the same time - uplifting because I can sense how nice and friendly the people must have been that you met, sad because it highlights how we are failing in helping those affected by disaster. I believe that insurance can play a role in helping disaster victims. But in order to do so, we need to reinvent our products and our business models.

Parametric covers can be part of the solution. They link payout to measured properties of a natural catastrophe event rather than actual damage to the insured property. This can speed up payment of claims after an event and it reduces administration cost compared to traditional policies.

Insurers may have to rethink distribution. The traditional way of selling insurance through agents may not work in all markets. Technology can help in bringing insurance to the poor, as mentioned by others.

Finally, education is important. People need to know about risk and ways to manage it - not only in the Philippines but also in countries like Switzerland.

With regard to corruption, insurance may be better than aid. It places the money directly in the hands of those who need it. Insurance payouts are based on a contractual relationship, leaving less room for embezzling.

A last thought: It has been shown that giving money (not goods) directly to the extreme poor is a very efficient and empowering way of giving aid. GiveDirectly ( is a charity that uses innovative technology to do so. Maybe insurers can learn from them...

Alicia Montoya - 22 Jan 2015, 8:17 p.m.

Thanks, Andreas. Regarding GiveDirectly: awesome!! I KNEW somebody had to have invented something already! I have to say the system does seem quite high maintenance / cost, though, in terms of all the checks required... So sad we're such a naturally corrupt bunch that we need all these measures so people won't try play the system... But hey, it's better than the alternative (losing all to corruption).

I must admit I like the parametric covers solution better as it's lean and all the infrastructure required (mobile towers and phones, right?) is already in place. During my travels, it seemed nobody had bank accounts but everybody had phones... with facebook!! :)

But I agree, a key issue is education. And I think now the message will be heard: was just reading this morning a WEF blog from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees saying the aid system is broken and that the rate at which catastrophes (natural and man-made) are hitting us has way surpassed our capacity to deal with crises.

"After the many terrible crises of the past three years, we have now surpassed that breaking point. The international humanitarian community no longer has the capacity to respond. Multiplying and protracted conflicts, growing environmental disasters and failed states are trapping millions of people in an accelerating cycle of crises. (...) With every year that passes, more people are spending a longer time in exile, and taking longer to recover".

As you say, Andreas, time to rethink our approach and solutions. And I can't think of a better bunch of people to do so than Swiss Re's experts like yourself and our wide network of partners :)

Andreas Schraft - 23 Jan 2015, 7:32 a.m.

I first learned about GiveDirectly in this TED talk They say that 85 to 90 percent of every dollar donated reaches the poor (compared to about 50 to 60 percent for many other charities). Micro insurance will have to be cost-efficient in a similar way to be successful.

What I like most about putting money directly in the hands of those who need it is that it empowers them. I believe that this is where the value of parametric micro insurance is: People can use the money to repair their house, or the could set up a small business or fulfill a spiritual need (nice example about this in the TED talk) etc. - they know best what makes sense.

Alicia Montoya - 23 Jan 2015, 10:39 p.m.

OK, I'm sold! Although I guess they each have their place. And while direct transfers are much more effective in improving an individual family's well-being, they won't (re)build you schools, roads or hospitals. But I agree, with you, empowering the families is definitely a much better approach than what we normally do (which, it seems, is often just get in the way and cost the project money).

And yeah, there are really awful examples of well-intended, but completely failed, aid. This recent story by the IFRC highlights some, and funnily enough puts the Philippines down as one of the better countries in terms of national disaster management. Following the accounts I heard while there, I dread imagining what a badly managed country might be like in terms of disaster relief

Steve - 24 Jan 2015, 10:55 p.m.

Living in the Philippines, I've noticed that the climate discourse here has in some cases become a crutch to divert attention from local political issues.

Despite anecdotal reports, actual data reveal that typhoons in the Philippines are decreasing in number and have not, overall, increased in intensity. They are, however, doing a lot more damage. This is not a function of global or climate issues. Part of it is deforestation, watershed degradation, and obstructed drainage, contributing to flooding and landslides. A great deal of it is population growth and migration: people move around much more than they used to, and when poor people move they often settle in high risk areas, which are likely to be vacant. All of these could be mitigated and managed by local political action, but leaders often find it more expedient to speak of climate change, which of course puts the blame out of their control. They also of course find it convenient to speak of "climate justice", which they translate to "send us lots of money".

Anecdotal evidence on storm occurrence and intensity is often just wrong. When a storm caused a large number of deaths in Cagayan de Oro several years ago it was widely stated that "typhoons never used to hit Mindanao". That, again per actual records, is simply not true: typhoons have always been rare in Mindanao, but they have happened on a periodic basis. Of course last time a storm hit the area they didn't have several thousand "informal settlers" living on a sandbar island in the river mouth. The city government had been alerted to that hazard, but chose to ignore the warnings.

About corruption here I could say a good deal, but that's another rant

Alicia Montoya - 29 Jan 2015, 7:31 p.m.

Thanks, Steve. At the risk of sounding like a US republican senator, I'm not a scientist so I can't comment on the frequency or severity of the storms ;)

But losses are indeed growing and, as you say, it's all too easy to dodge responsibility and not take mitigation and adaption measures in a country whose population has grown by almost a quarter in the last 20 years, much of which lives on the coasts that regularly get hit by storms.

The good news is there's lots that can be done to help, even if I now realize it's a lot more complicated than need be, really. Swiss Re's Chief Economist APAC, Clarence Wong, highlights measures that can and should be taken to build resilience in this blog

Regarding corruption, oh yes, do please rant! It's the first step in solving the problem. And I really appreciate your views given your first hand experience, having lived in the Philippines now for how long? 20 plus years?

Steve Rogers - 3 Feb 2015, 10:05 p.m.

30 plus actually, but who's counting?

I mostly agree with Mr. Wong's proposals, though given the prevailing political dysfunction here they will be difficult to implement. The Disaster risk reduction and response systems seem almost designed to fail, and land use plans and building codes are generally ignored. In many cases highly vulnerable areas have already been built up, often with very vulnerable structures. The heavily populated Marikina valley, just outside Manila, is an example of an area that almost seems designed to maximize disaster risk... the economic value of proximity to the city just seems to outweigh the potential for disaster.

Trying to plan land use and impose building standards retroactively is, needless to say, a problem.

On corruption... well, the short version of the rant is that corruption needs to be seen not as a problem in itself, but as a subset of the larger problem of elite impunity. About that, of course, one could say or write a good deal!

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