The Philippines is still very far from having a complete understanding of the human cost of Super Typhoon Yolanda, and that makes the question of what comes next for the country one that must be approached with a little bit of delicacy.
Now is the time to focus on providing aid and comfort to the survivors and mourning the dead, but the time will come, in all likelihood much sooner than anyone wishes or seems fair, when the volunteers will go home, the donations will stop flowing, and the attention of the public here and abroad will move on to the next crisis.
The thing about the Yolanda catastrophe that is unnerving a lot of disaster mitigation and recovery experts right now is how eerily similar it is in many respects to two other large-scale calamities: the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami; and the 2010 Haiti earthquake. All three disasters inflicted catastrophic damage on large, economically depressed populations, and all three were of such a horrifying magnitude that they sparked an immediate worldwide humanitarian response on a vast scale. The key word in that, however, is “immediate”; the proportion of long-term interest in recovery and rebuilding by international agencies such as the United Nations or of development nongovernment organizations to the level of assistance provided in the first days of the aftermath is miniscule. At some point, the affected countries are expected to be able to stand on their own two feet again, but for poorer countries, there is no smooth way for the external aid to disengage without creating an economic and developmental vacuum.
Granted, the Philippines is not Haiti or Sri Lanka, but some of the problems of long-term recovery described by aid organizations working in those places sound alarmingly familiar: Inequitable distribution of rebuilding efforts, resulting in some places being overlooked and in worse poverty than before the disasters, developmental resources lost to leakage through corruption or inefficiency, and political strife hampering the development of effective, continuing redevelopment strategies. Even in the immediate aftermath of Super Typhoon Yolanda, we are seeing symptoms of some of those problems here. While no one begrudges the attention being given to Tacloban—one look at the place is proof enough that they need every bit of help that can be sent there, and then some—the days after Yolanda’s assault have seen a growing number of pleas ranging from furious to heartbreakingly desperate from places where help has not yet arrived. Political childishness seems to be taking a toll as well, with some towns in Cebu leveling accusations against Gov. Hilario Davide 3rd—accusations that are hard to dismiss in the case of one town, Medellin, which must be passed to reach the hard-hit town of Daanbantayan from Cebu City—that places led by non-Liberal Party politicians are being intentionally snubbed in relief efforts.
More disturbingly, the Aquino administration has quickly fallen into its annoying habit of trying to downplay the impact of a disaster, even in the face of grave evidence to the contrary, and at a time when anyone with even a modicum of common sense realizes there is no possible way an accurate assessment can be made yet. Just before the typhoon hit, a widely circulated report from Bloomberg News estimated—with the appropriate caveats about the unavoidable uncertainty of the figures—that the storm could cost the Philippines as much as $14 billion, including $2 billion in insured losses. But by Sunday, Socioeconomic Planning Secretary and National and Economic and Development Authority Director General Arsenio Balisacan was reassuring the media that the country could maintain its 7 percent growth for the year despite the losses, which at that time were only beginning to be calculated.
The Department of Agriculture (DA) jumped on the bandwagon as well, putting the estimated loss to the sector at P3.7 billion based on “initial estimates and partial reports as of November 10”, with Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala offering the blue-sky opinion that he didn’t expect the estimates to go much higher, perhaps only P500 million to P1 billion more. What is not known about the DA’s assessment is whether or not it included the sugar industry, a critical export commodity for the country that is mainly produced in areas right in the path of the storm. According to a brief report from the Sugar Regulatory Administration, their estimate as of Monday was that Yolanda might have cost between 2 percent and 5 percent of the target output for 2013-2014, which would have a rough value of up to P1.9 billion. Even if they are not substantially higher than these very early estimates—and there is really no reason to believe they won’t be, at this point—the agriculture losses alone will account for a 0.2-percent drop in the gross domestic product growth rate for the fourth quarter; add to that the enormous loss of productivity and spending, of which the increase in government outlays for disaster relief will barely make a dent, and Balisacan’s optimism appears questionable at best.
On the positive side, as the disaster-prone nature of the Philippines unfortunately provides too many opportunities for me to repeat, the recovery, rebuilding, and especially the effort towards long-term risk mitigation and response provide a legitimate opportunity for economic growth if planning and deployment of resources is handled with foresight and competence. That must begin with the country’s leadership suspending wishful thinking, and striving to make the most accurate and honest assessment possible of the true cost and economic scope of the disaster.