Did Super Typhoon Ondoy (Ketsana) Expose the Philippines as a Vulnerable Country to Disasters?

The Center for Research and Epidemiology Disasters (CRED) ranked the Philippines as one of most disaster-prone countries in the world. The Philippines is also fourth in the world among countries hit by the highest number of disasters over the past 20 years, according to the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR). In terms of tropical storms, the country is visited by an average of twenty typhoons per year, being situated in the West Pacific Basin (NDRRC Report, 2011).

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In the Philippines, 70 percent of the country’s disasters are due to hydro-meteorological phenomena such as typhoon and flooding and the poor are often the most vulnerable disaster victims. Social vulnerability in a population is not evenly distributed. Some regions are more susceptible to the impacts of hazards than other places based on the characteristics of the people residing within them (Cutter and Emrich, 2006, p. 102).

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Typhoon Ketsana, popularly known in the country as Typhoon Ondoy, is one of the most devastating typhoons that hit the Philippines in 2009 that revealed the differential vulnerabilities of the Philippine population. Its impacts largely depend on the physical attributes of the place and the social characteristics of people residing in it. Some areas suffered devastating losses in life and property compared to other places. Countries such as the Philippines with limited economic resources, low levels of technology, poor information and skills, poor infrastructure, unstable or weak institutions, and inequitable empowerment and access to resources have little capacity to adapt and are highly vulnerable (Penalba, Elazegui, Pulhin & Cruz, 2012, p.310).

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The urban poor who are totally dependent on social services and usually less able to respond effectively to disasters suffer most during disasters (Cutter, Boruff, and Shirley 2003; Morrow 1999; See & Porio, 2015). And being socially and economically marginalized in society, the poor are usually mostly ignored during disaster recovery (Morrow, 1999; Tobin and Ollenberger, 1993). The people who were severely affected by Ketsana in the Philippines were urban poor residing in makeshift shanties in low-lying areas or near creeks and rivers.

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Typhoon Ketsana did not only expose the differential vulnerabilities of the Philippines. It also revealed the inadequacy of the country’s disaster management law in dealing with post-disaster recovery after large-scale disasters. With the unexpected loss of lives, destruction of property, and a number of people homeless, the Philippine government updated its old primary disaster management law and enacted the Philippine Disaster Risk Reduction Management Act of 2010 (PDRRMA).

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Unlike the old law, the PDRRMA is said to be pro-active and holistic in its approach and has–for the first time–addressed the issue of post-disaster recovery. The Philippine government, as well as Ketsana post-disaster responders, became optimistic with the enactment of PDRRMA that the thousands of homeless disaster victims would finally receive adequate housing and resettlement. Years have passed since the passage of this law and beneficiaries have received housing assistance from the government, non-government organizations, and foreign and local donors. Yet, in-depth qualitative studies on how the law’s post-disaster provisions were implemented on the ground, given the multiplicity of actors and the plurality of legal and nonlegal normative orders that surround PDRRMA, seemed missing.

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Social Vulnerability in Disasters and the Philippines

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Social vulnerability is defined as “the susceptibility of groups to the impacts of hazards, as well as their resiliency, or ability to adequately recover from them” (Cutter and Emrich, 2006, p. 103). “Social vulnerability highlights differences in the human capacity to prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters. It varies over space and time, and among and between social groups, largely due to differences in socioeconomic and demographic characteristics” (Abstract, Hummel, Cutter, & Emrich, 2016).

Although considerable research attention has examined components of biophysical vulnerability and the vulnerability of the built environment (Mileri, 1999), few studies have been done to understand it. Socially created vulnerabilities are largely ignored, mainly due to the difficulty in quantifying them, which also explains why social losses are normally absent in after-disaster cost/loss estimation reports. Instead, social vulnerability is most often described using the individual characteristics of people (age, race, health, income, type of dwelling unit, employment). Social vulnerability is partially the product of social inequalities—those social factors that influence or shape the susceptibility of various groups to harm and that also govern their ability to respond. However, it also includes place inequalities—those characteristics of communities and the built environment, such as the level of urbanization, growth rates, and economic vitality that contribute to the social vulnerability of places” (Cutter, Boruff, & Shirley, 2003, p. 243).

Generally speaking, vulnerability to environmental hazards means the potential for loss. Since losses vary geographically, over time, and among different social groups, vulnerability also varies over time and space. Within the hazards literature, vulnerability has many different connotations, depending on the research orientation and perspective (Dow, 1992; Cutter, 1996; 2001a).

There are three main tenets in vulnerability research: the identification of conditions that make people or place vulnerable to extreme natural events, an exposure model (Burton Kates, and White, 1993; Anderson, 2000); the assumption that vulnerability is a social condition, a measure of social resistance or resilience to hazards (Blaike et al,1994; Hewit, 1997); and the integration of potential exposures and societal resilience with a specific focus on particular places or regions (Kasperon, Kasperon, and Turner, 1995; Cutter, Mitchell, and Scott, 2000) (Cutter, Boruff, & Shirley, 2003, p. 242-243).”

Social vulnerability of people to disasters in a population is not evenly distributed. Some regions are more susceptible to the impacts of hazards than other places based on the characteristics of the people residing within them. In the case of Hurricane Katrina, differential vulnerabilities were observed: residencies in high-risk areas such as the hurricane coasts received catastrophic losses compared to other places hit by the hurricane. This geographic discrepancies in social vulnerability thus requires different mitigation, post-response, and recovery actions (Cutter and Emrich, 2006, p. 102).

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The Philippines is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to disasters. Typhoon Ketsana or Ondoy in 2009 revealed differential vulnerabilities of the country. Its impacts largely depend on the physical attributes of the place and the social characteristics of people residing in it. Some areas suffered devastating losses in life and property compared to other places. The local government units (LGUs) are in the forefront of disaster management, including responding to the impacts of climate change in the Philippines.

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70 percent of the country’s disasters are due to hydro-meteorological phenomena such as typhoon and flooding. LGUs, being in the forefront in the delivery of basic services, also have the mandate in Disaster Risk Management (DRM) as provided for by a number of national policies such as the Climate Change Act of 2009 and Disaster Risk Reduction and Management (DRRM) Act of 2010 (Penalba, Elazegui, Pulhin & Cruz, 2012, p.309).

Because adaptation to climate change is location-specific, the role of local institutions is critical in shaping adaptation and improving capacities of the most vulnerable social groups. However, many LGUs are not aware of climate change phenomena and do not have the capacity to assist the affected communities in preparing climate change adaptation measures. It is important for people, communities and institutions to develop adaptive capacity and enhance resilience to minimize risks, damages and losses (Penalba, Elazegui, Pulhin & Cruz, 2012, p.309).

The local government code (LGC) of the Philippines vests authority to LGUs (i.e. provinces, cities and municipalities and villages in the implementation and maintenance of disaster management program, ensuring prevention, mitigation, preparedness, response, rehabilitation and reconstruction, and development) (Penalba, Elazegui, Pulhin & Cruz, 2012, p.309).

Vulnerability in the Philippines is determined by the socioeconomic characteristics of the communities and their abilities in responding effectively. The capacity to adapt varies across regions, countries, and socioeconomic groups and will vary over time. The most vulnerable regions and communities are those that are highly exposed to the changes expected in the climate and have limited adaptive capacity. Countries with limited economic resources, low levels of technology, poor information and skills, poor infrastructure, unstable or weak institutions, and inequitable empowerment and access to resources have little capacity to adapt and are highly vulnerable (IPCC, 2001) (Penalba, Elazegui, Pulhin & Cruz, 2012, p.310).

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