The Philippines’ Tough Rebuilding Task

The following analysis of the fiscal, infrastructure and social challenges of rebuilding the Philippines in the wake of Super Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda was prepared by the Manila-based country risk analysis firm Pacific Strategies and Assessments. Although subscription only, it was made available to Asia Sentinel.

The Philippines faces a daunting task of rebuilding and reconstruction following massive damage caused by a series of disasters in recent months, including the MNLF related violence in Zamboanga City; the earthquake in the Central Visayas; and the destruction caused by typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda.

As Philippine authorities start the transition from providing relief assistance to preparation for massive rehabilitation, one of the major challenges the government faces is the arduous task of providing shelter and resettling a staggering number of families displaced and rendered homeless by these tragic events.

Displacement of the calamity victims has resulted in more problems. Thousands of affected families are staying in bunkhouses, tent cities and overcrowded evacuation centers, raising concerns of possible spread of diseases due to health and sanitation problems. Others have opted to leave their hometowns and look for temporary settlement and livelihood opportunities elsewhere in the country.

In typhoon-ravaged Tacloban City in Leyte Province alone, the International Organization for Migration estimates that about 800 people leave for Metro Manila everyday; most of them are either now staying with relatives or seeking shelter at tent camps. This migration out of the disaster zone has raised fears that some evacuees may become victims of human trafficking syndicates or end up as informal settlers in urban areas like Metro Manila and Cebu; challenging the government’s social welfare capacity.

Rising from the Rubble The Philippine government announced plans to allot billions of pesos for rehabilitation of the affected areas: PhP3.89 billion (US$90.46 million) for Zamboanga City, PhP5 billion (US$116 million) for earthquake-ravaged Bohol Province, and PhP130 billion (US$3.02 billion) for typhoon-battered areas.

So far, government responses in these areas, especially those affected by the typhoon, are concentrated on providing temporary shelters, such as bunkhouses and tent cities, relief goods, and financial assistance through loans to affected families.

The reconstruction and rehabilitation process, however, will also include rebuilding damaged infrastructures, restoring power and water supply, and reviving local economic activity, establishing peace and order, providing livelihood programs, and reconstructing government buildings and schools in the affected localities.

Zamboanga City and Bohol Province have started implementing their respective development and rehabilitation plans. On November 22, President Benigno S. Aquino III formed a task force to develop the government’s rehabilitation plan to provide basic services for typhoon victims until the end of 2014.

The task force, headed by former Leyte governor and current energy secretary Jericho Petilla, is also mandated to come up with medium and long-term solutions for Visayas’ rehabilitation. On Dec. 1, President Aquino also appointed former senator Panfilo Lacson as “rehabilitation czar” for affected areas of the typhoon.

Potholes in the Road for Recovery As the government launches its rehabilitation efforts, governance experts have warned of issues that could limit or derail the rebuilding process. Financing the rehabilitation effort is a key concern since it will take many years before the affected areas get back on their feet. In the case of the typhoon-affected communities alone, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council estimates that the rehabilitation could take up to five years.

The massive rebuilding can easily deplete the annual calamity funds allocated for national and local governments, and the donations from private corporations and foreign countries. On Nov. 27, Department of Budget and Management Secretary Florencio Abad said the government is considering borrowing PhP80 billion (US$1.86 billion) from multilateral agencies to finance the PhP130 billion (US$3 billion) rehabilitation and reconstruction plan. The Philippines has already received US$414 million in foreign aid pledges from other countries and international organizations.

Problems from past resettlement projects also raise questions about the government’s ability to successfully implement the rehabilitation process. Previous government housing projects, especially those designed for informal settlers in Metro Manila, have drawn criticism because of the lack access to basic services such as water and electricity and distance from sources of livelihood.

Some political observers warn that politics and rivalry among government officials could do more harm in the rehabilitation process due to the involvement of politicians who want to use the program to advance their political influence. The rivalry between Vice President Jejomar Binay and Interior and Local Government Secretary Manuel Roxas II—two potential presidential contenders for 2016—was reportedly the reason why the Office of the President’s proposed 2014 budget wants to transfer housing funds for calamity victims of the National Housing Authority, which is under Binay’s supervision, to the Department of the Interior and Local Government led by Roxas, an Aquino political ally.

Learning from Neighbors Political observers and disaster experts believe that the Philippines should adapt some of the rehabilitation best practices of neighboring countries, such as Indonesia and China. Indonesia implemented a massive rehabilitation program following the 2004 tsunami that ravaged the coastal communities of Aceh Province.

The Indonesian government created an agency with vast powers—the Agency for the Rehabilitation and Reconstruction of Aceh and Nias—that implemented a US$6.7 billion rehabilitation plan and managed donations from international nongovernment organizations and foreign countries for reconstruction. Although rehabilitation in Aceh encountered problems during the early stages, it is now cited as a model for rebuilding infrastructure in the area through close consultation with the affected communities.

A 2012 World Bank assessment of China’s rehabilitation efforts in areas affected by the May 2008 Sichuan earthquake noted that the process was used by the government as an opportunity to build stronger structures with higher seismic standards. Experts also said that Philippine authorities can combine this strategy with strict implementation of zoning laws to ensure that houses and structures will be more disaster-resilient and located away from high hazard areas.

Massive Rebuilding is a Test Government officials admit that the rehabilitation process will take several years and will most likely be passed on to the next administration. This massive rebuilding needs a master plan that does not only provide stopgap measures, but a systematic approach that will prevent more amage and improve local government capacity as first responders to future disasters.

At stake in this rehabilitation effort is not only the fate of the affected communities but also President Aquino’s political legacy. The way the Aquino administration implements the rehabilitation plan and uses the assistance from foreign countries and international organizations could become his greatest political challenge yet. A major challenge will be the issues of transparency and governance; minimizing corruption and politics from this process.

Against this backdrop, Philippine leaders also face another daunting reality - the realty that the country is disaster prone; and there will undoubtedly be future problems to deal with. Experts agree that the Philippine government must become better prepared for dealing with these tragic events; another challenge facing an already beleaguered Aquino government.