• Toward resilient communities



    Last Friday the 13th, Rehabilitation Czar Secretary Panfilo “Ping” Lacson invited me to go with him and Undersecretary Danny Antonio on his first official site visit to the affected areas in Samar and Leyte. It was my second time to visit Tacloban, Leyte, but only had the opportunity to visit Tacloban and Palo, Leyte. This time, we were able to visit the affected communities in Guiuan in Samar, and Ormoc, Tacloban cities, and Palo in Leyte as well.

    With over 16 million people affected by the typhoon, Secretary Lacson and his team face a daunting and challenging task ahead. There is an immediate need for affordable shelter and construction, and corrupt practices have started to seep through the reconstruction efforts, taking advantage of the vulnerability of the affected families. But with a strong private sector partnership, good governance, and better-suited policies that address hazards before they become disasters, Visayas can bounce back better and stronger.

    Build back better, not worse
    Our first stop was Guiuan, Samar where Super Typhoon Yolanda first struck in Nov 8. Owing to its location, Guiuan was destroyed. Coconut trees littered the vast expanse of land. Although many of the residents have started to rebuild their homes, people are being forced to use the same old construction practices and building materials that we now know will not be able to withstand another strong typhoon.

    But when we went to Tacloban and Guiuan, Samar, We saw them constructing new permanent homes on the same area where their communities used to be, allotting six square meters per family, and using galvanized iron roofs [also known as GI roofs], which were used in the destroyed homes. I understand the urgency to build new homes for the families left homeless by the typhoon, but if we are to ensure resilient, disaster-proof communities, this is not the way to do it. We’re committing the same mistakes again. Our President said we should ‘build back better,’ and the only way to do it is through to employ adaptive architecture and engineering measures to these areas. As we could see during the site visit, it was ‘building back worse.’

    Many people think rebuilding and relocating the damaged coastal communities will take more than four years, but with some of our volunteer projects abroad, it only took less than that. For example, when the Indian Ocean tsunami struck the coastal community of Hambantota, Sri Lanka in 2004, a relocation plan spearheaded by the Tzu Chi Foundation was carried out within a month after the tsunami. The local government stipulated that no home be rebuilt within 100 meters from the coast, and affected residents were relocated 1.8 miles from the coast. The resettlement village in the Siribopura district is a low-lying region of about 240 hectares and was formerly a jungle. Along with Taiwanese architect Guo Shu-sheng and Sri Lankan engineering consultant Monchito Gayos, we designed a new community of 1,000 homes. Each home allocated 21 square meters for each family, and allowed design flexibility for a maximum of five family members. The homes were finished in 2007, and more than 600 tsunami-displaced families started a new life in Siribopura.

    For the families ravaged by the storm surge in the Visayas, we propose permanent homes that are 42 square meters per family (girls and boys / sons and daughters should not share the same bedrooms). Like Siribopura, it should be located a safe distance from the coast as possible, at least 800 meters from the coast. Since we have to take into consideration the urban population of some of the cities, like Tacloban, resettlement homes should employ the principles of vertical urbanism and should be at least three floors, with the ground floor to serve as a parking space or other spaces not intended for living quarters.

    In Aceh, Indonesia, we also helped plan and design communities after the tsunami. Transient homes employed the same the home design and allocation as those in Siribopura. These are more humane and habitable than the 6-9 square meter homes that are being built in the disaster areas.

    Bouncing back and forward
    Unplanned urbanization leads to environmental degradation, and environmental degradation makes communities vulnerable to natural disasters. By stripping away the very ecosystem that surrounds our communities, we are stripping away the natural protection it offers. Resiliency, according to an Urban Land Institute (ULI) report on resilience and adaptability, “Advancing Strategies for Long-term Resilience and Adaptability after Hurricane Sandy,” considers the needs of society to plan for the impact of climate change. Resiliency can be in terms of bouncing back (the capacity of a community to recover after a disaster and to return to its state before the event). Or it can be bouncing forward (recover and at the same time, enhance the capacities of the community to better withstand future stresses).

    Filipinos are undeniably resilient in terms of bouncing back, for even at the face of pain, suffering, destruction, and death, we are able to remain optimistic. But we need to bounce forward as well. If the current structural design of the resettlement communities remain unchanged, our communities will experience the same traumatic experience once more and put lives at stake.

    As I have previously discussed, adaptive measures should be taken in these areas by strengthening coastal protection. The immediate action that these provinces can do is to increase their environmental buffers by regenerating planting of mangrove forests and use trees as buffer zones. It has been estimated by Oxfam, NDRRMC, and UNI-MIRA that for every kilometer of mangroves planted, there will be a 0.5-meter reduction in storm surge levels. Moreover, most of the areas in Samar and Leyte rely on agriculture and the sea for their livelihood (45% of affected families rely on fishing, 30% on farming as their primary source of income), thus it will be particularly difficult to relocate the fishing communities inland.

    Let us note the Pinatubo experience. After people were relocated, they went back to their previous homes for several reasons: the sentimental values attached to the place and the livelihood they have been used to among others. The relocation sites became ghost towns after the resettled folks went back to their old homes. In designing communities or resettlements, livelihood should be highly regarded.

    For our project in Sta. Cruz, Zambales, Palafox Associates proposed a plan to help the coastal communities as well as residents who own agricultural lands and those residing in vulnerable areas. Just like our proposed comprehensive land use plan for San Juan City, new urban plans and development activities were done by establishing a disaster risk reduction and management frameworks that could be implemented at a local level. We also recommended improving existing facilities, established education / awareness training programs for the residents to be relocated, and organized multi-stakeholder dialogues and resources.

    Forgotten crises
    Let us not forget the other affected areas in Visayas and Mindanao. More than 20,000 families displace by the Zamboanga City siege are still living in tents inside the city’s stadium, while more than 3 million people are still trying to find a steady and sturdy ground to start anew in Bohol and Cebu after the earthquake. These areas are in need of sustainable government and stakeholder engagement for resilience and risk reduction, whether natural or man-made.

    According to an April 2013 report by the UNISDR, the private sector is responsible for up to 85% of all global investments in new buildings, industry, and small to medium-sized enterprises. Private companies can also help ensure new urban housing and commercial developments are built to safer standards and reflect the needs of all citizens.

    Should there be no updated land use plan or to the least a plan without the integration of climate-adaptive strategies, our residents and communities would live a daily routine of risk and threats. A strong planning process will serve as the guiding post not just for development but also the embodiment of disaster-proof principles. Such would prepare its residents for changes in the climate that are not easily controlled.

    2013 is almost over. As the saying goes, a new year offers the opportunity to start over by reflecting on previous mistakes we have made, and make sure we do not repeat these same mistakes again. Let us put the red tape and the politics aside and collaborate under one platform to build better, safer, smarter, resilient, and sustainable communities. These crises might have wiped out homes, lives and livelihoods, but it also gave us a chance to start anew. Let us make the most of it.

    “We will neglect our cities to our peril, for in neglecting them we neglect the nation.”
    –John F. Kennedy


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    1. If we can encourage the mall builders to build malls in the proposed relocation site ahead of time, it will serve as a magnet to the people to build their houses near those malls and forget about sentimentalities of the past. They know that the value of their new homes will increase as fast as the city progresses and the nearer you are to the malls, the more expensive your house will cost in value. Mag-uunahan pa ang mga iyan, tingnan ninyo.

    2. It appears that instead of a solution we created a bigger problem. If you move this fishermen inland, they will have difficult time going back & forth form house to shore. How many years will it take the mangroves to develop? Also, new laws must be imposed regarding building sturdy & stronger houses that can withstand typhoons.

    3. Nice job Mr. Palafox. Pls. Help Sec. Lacson to rebuild the visayan region affected by recent calamities. Go Ping we pray for your success dont mind your detractors just do your task to our beloved kababayans. Good luck sir, come what may on 2016…..