The Global Urbanist

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Learning from Typhoon Haiyan: risk and resilience in emerging secondary cities

The worst storm to make landfall in recorded history hit Tacloban and other Philippine cities, each of which had no more than 250,000 residents yet which had to face an emergency operations challenge daunting even for the world's largest mega-cities. Lily Song learns how Tacloban and other secondary cities can improve their ability to cope.

Lily Song

Lily Song

Cities: Tacloban

Topics: Integrated planning, Emergencies and reconstruction, National governance, Regional governance, Private sector governance, Flooding and storms

Urbanists from across Southeast Asia convened in Singapore earlier this month to participate in the Asia Development Dialogue on "building resilience and effect governance of emerging cities in Asean" (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), organised by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and Oxfam. The last instalment in a five-part series aiming to promote networked and collaborative urban governance strategising in intermediate-sized cities in the region, the forum brought together 40 mayors from such "emerging" cities along with various urban planning and development experts.

One of the focal points was a public panel reflecting on the lessons of Typhoon Haiyan, known as Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines, the country that absorbed the bulk of the storm's destruction, including the loss of over 6,000 lives, when it struck on 8 November 2013. The panel included Alfred Romualdez, mayor of Tacloban — capital of Leyte Province and the main urban centre of the Eastern Visayas region in the east of the country, and where the storm destroyed around 90% of the city's built environment.

The experience of the typhoon spoke to the broader challenges confronting "secondary" or "emerging" cities such as Tacloban, which are rapidly proliferating as tourist hubs, centres of trade, services and industry, seats of regional or provincial government, and destinations for migrants from rural areas, smaller cities and neighbouring countries. Failing to command the attention and resources that capital or primate cities garner from central governments, private investors and international agencies, many struggle to meet growing demands for basic public goods and services while suffering disproportionate exposure to socio-ecological risks, including those due to climate change.

The eye of the storm

As Romualdez recounted against a backdrop of dramatic footage of the encroaching storm, when the typhoon hit this provincial and one-time national capital, gust speeds reached 378 km/h, and the storm surge reached 5 metres above the average sea level. Uprooted trees, wrecked building material, untold debris, and lifeless bodies commingled with black silt swept in from the bay, a rotting stench pervading the air for weeks to follow.

The city, provincial, and national governments had run through numerous disaster relief exercises and implemented various coordination mechanisms prior to the storm's arrival. However the unforeseen intensity of the typhoon overwhelmed abilities to coordinate at all levels. For instance, inaccurate forecasts by national agencies delayed the first response efforts at the local level, paralysing the system when the storm hit four hours earlier than expected.

Among the city's immediate tasks was to open the roads to the airport to facilitate the movement of relief goods and services. Besides restoring lines of communication and utilities (i.e. water, electricity), the task of rescuing victims and separating casualties from the debris weighed urgently, as did the problem of waste management. As almost 400 bodies were recovered in the first week (and would eventually total 2,800), the mayor enjoined the national department of health to oversee the construction of shallow temporary graves in the public cemetery for subsequent exhumation, identification and processing by pathologists.

Tacloban's position as the centre of the national government's services in the Eastern Visayas region, and as the region's largest economic centre, exacerbated the challenges. The local population of 240,000 (per census figures) goes up to 1 million during the day, and at the time the typhoon hit it was close to 800,000. Particular during disasters, cities such as Tacloban attract people from the surrounding region, who associate the agglomeration of commerce, regional hospital, banks, national police command centre and military headquarters with convenience and safety. Yet collapsed communication lines fed panic and chaos, with residents of outlying areas coming into Tacloban in search of friends and relatives, and some from Tacloban seeking shelter elsewhere. Such movements of people further complicated relief distribution and required a recalibration of efforts based on the population "on the ground", which far exceeded census figures.

In the immediate aftermath, Tacloban policymakers modified the city's building code and master plan based on reflections from the first days of disaster. For instance, most hospital emergency rooms, complete with essential equipment, needed to be relocated from the ground floor (the first floor in local terminology), which tended to be the worst hit. The city also identified the need for relocations of vulnerable neighbourhoods that would go beyond physical resettlement to encompass creating a more "functional township" that would serve the economic and social needs of even the most marginalised groups, with investments from donors and the national government.

In concluding, Romualdez emphasised the overwhelming pressures exerted by natural disasters on city governments and the need for better inter-agency coordination, led by a national agency solely focused on natural disasters, given the ubiquity of need for policies, plans, practices and drills at local levels across the country. Alongside the valuable contributions of international organisations and individual volunteers, he also identified a role for the private sector in emergency shelter provision and other efforts to promote public safety.

Mainstreaming disaster risk reduction in secondary cities

Marqueza Reyes, Asean technical advisor for disaster recovery and rehabilitation, spoke in more general terms about the challenges and opportunities for secondary cities such as Tacloban in the face of increasing disaster and climate change risks. Institutional arrangements for disaster and risk management tend to fall on the plate of mayors and city officials, meaning that risk governance should be an integral part of local governance systems to ensure effective response in the face of disaster.

Disasters tend to "make or break" cities, and whether a city can "bounce forward" through reconstruction rather than "bounce back" to a previous unsustainable pattern of development depends on the extent of investment in risk reduction. She advocated mainstreaming disaster management in local planning and development processes — pursuing smart, safe growth that delivers more compact, liveable cities, with less urban sprawl and more walkability as well as more risk-sensitive land use planning. By mapping hazards, levels of exposure to risk, and vulnerability as well as assets in disaster situations, risk assessment could facilitate response, recovery, and long-term planning goals in tune with future trends.

Lillian Mercado, deputy regional director of Oxfam and based in Bangkok, drew upon her experience in disaster and conflict areas in Southeast Asia to argue for the importance of coordinating and building capacity across multiple sectors and scales to govern risk and resilience at the local and regional levels. She affirmed the role of digital technology in predicting disasters, mapping hazards at the local level, and understanding the vulnerabilities of communities. While digital tools can help identify the places that are most exposed, enabling cities to direct emergency response efforts faster and more effectively, realising their benefits depends on wider social mobilisation. In the aftermath of disasters, when myriad international organisations and national interests arrive on the scene with disparate and in some cases conflicting agendas, community support for a consistent local agenda is integral to its success. However this requires nurturing spaces, processes and mechanisms for public engagement in project planning and implementation, including those related to planning livelihoods, land use, water governance and natural resource governance, which carry implications for risk and resilience. As people are not the same, some being "more or less powerful, visible, voiced than others", the terms of public engagement merit careful attention.

Despite the media attraction and public sympathy commanded by major disasters like Haiyan, the majority of disasters are small and occur under the radar. Their frequency and repetition impact on the erosion of local assets, especially for poor people, pushed further into poverty as a result. Hence discussions about resilience, rather than focusing on major incidents, should attend to the many smaller, more mundane incidents that tend to be overlooked.

Risk management extends to the internet

The way data networks and other online assets are managed are another overlooked aspect of risk management. Raul Cortez, corporate affairs director at Microsoft, described the company's provision of internet service in post-disaster areas using TV frequencies to broadcast internet connections to maintain a signal within a 5km range. In Tacloban, Microsoft partnered with the city to establish internet connections less than two weeks after the typhoon hit, even as people went without electricity and phone connections. Once satellite networks began broadcasting data, local and national governments were better able to communicate to coordinate an effective response. The public was also better able to communicate using smartphones, which also likely enhanced the response.

Contemplating additional opportunities for improving disaster response, Cortez cited potential improvements in relief supply chain management. In his words "a number of goods came in but they didn't all go to the right places because there was no geo-mapping in place. It wasn't clear what communities needed what. Some communities didn't need food but just water, but they got food, not water." In the Tacloban case, not only did existing technologies fail to ascertain the typhoon's magnitude, the lack of technological capacity meant that opportunities to determine what resources were available in the area prior and after the storm as well as how to mobilise them were missed. Better communication technologies could have further enhanced feedback cycles and coordination between different levels of government. Another missed precaution was the application of cloud technology, which would have prevented the loss of local data systems and eased the process of recovery.

The wider challenge of secondary cities

Despite the magnitude of Typhoon Haiyan, such disasters are only the tip of the iceberg. Asia and Africa are projected to dominate urbanisation trends in the next century, with the vast majority of urbanites residing in cities of less than one million, whether located in non-primate regions and provinces or on the peripheries of larger city regions. At present, many secondary cities in Southeast Asia struggle with rapid population growth, weak fiscal capacity, deficient urban infrastructure and services, and social inequality among other issues. So far, the megacities of the developing world have begun to enter mainstream thinking around urban planning, climate change adaptation and disaster management. However current urbanisation and development trends along with accompanying social and ecological pressures call for greater attention to the experiences of ordinary cities and their inhabitants, as well as the more mundane disasters and resistance effors that largely occur under the radar.

Fortunately, local governments and planning authorities have considerable discretion in disaster mitigation, prevention and preparedness even before the likes of Typhoon Haiyan strike. A mainstreaming approach might entail integrating risk assessment and reduction measures into land use and economic development planning or promoting visions of compact, liveable cities, with less sprawl, more permeable green open spaces, robust urban infrastructure and services, and prosperous economies with a range of fulfilling livelihoods. That said, local and provincial governments appear hard-pressed to go at it alone. they require support from central governments, whether in the form of fiscal resources or political wherewithal, technical assistance, loans and grants from international agencies, or investment capital, sectoral knowledge and skills, and innovative products, services and strategies from the private sector.

Policymakers must recognise and tap into a fuller spectrum of local assets and resources, including the knowledge and capacities of local communities. Understanding what sorts of identities and affiliations, community groups and other civil society organisations, and community-based practices and problem-solving repertoires exist and how they might be harnessed and channelled appears fundamental to achieving deeper and wider-scale urban resilience. Some studies have found that policy innovations that reduce vulnerability result less from deliberately planned government interventions than community- and civil-society-based improvisations in response to recurrent hazards that dovetail with the public sector's policymaking processes. Such findings point to the import of nurturing disaster response capacities at all levels of the community, not only amongst the many layers of government that converge in Southeast Asia's secondary cities.

Lily Song is a provost fellow at the University of College London (UCL) Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy (STEaPP), research affiliate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Community Innovators Lab (CoLab), and adjunct researcher with the Centre for Liveable Cities in Singapore, with a PhD in Urban and Regional Planning from MIT.