15 November 2013

Haiyan--the meaning of a name

Haiyan is a girl's name. It is a rare name. Ironically it means sea swallow. The website www.themeaningofthename.com suggests "there are at least 2500 persons in the world having this name". Bizarrely this is the number of those who are estimated to have died in this tragedy--to have been swallowed by the sea.

Tragically these typhoons and hurricanes are not rare. They happen with regularity to countries in the South and South East Asian region. The World Bank released a report over the summer reviewing the science on cyclones. The science is not clear on whether there has been an increase in the frequency of cyclones, but the evidence is clear on projections of the increased intensity of cyclones--more rain, more wind, more strength--as a result of global warming.

Does this increased intensity have to mean more devastation?
190 mile an hour winds are going to do a lot of damage, no matter where in the world they land, but if you look at the disturbing before and after pictures (e.g. above) you can see it is the least solid buildings nearest to the coast that are obliterated.

Some obvious responses:
  • Building codes in areas of vulnerability have to be raised.
  • Insurance needs to become more affordable--at the national (i.e. Risk Capacity Facilities linked to weather patterns) and household level.
  • Outmigration from certain areas may be needed.
  • Greater spending from governments--donors and others--needs to be allocated to disaster risk reduction and preparedness (DRR).
  • DRR spending is less than 1% of ODA (and 4% of ODA humanitarian aid!) and has not increased significantly over the past 10 years. At the very least designate and protect safe routes for humanitarian assistance to get through (Haiyan victims are having to wait up to a week to get any help, largely due to the logistical problems of reaching them)
  • Invest more in Forward Purchasing Facilities (FPF) that allow advance purchases to shorten response times (WFP estimates that its 2008-2010 pilot FPF shortened response times by 53 days)
  • The poorest are the most vulnerable. Their lives and livelihoods will be permanently altered, even if they suffered not loss of life or trauma. Estimates of those affected from these massive cyclones range from 1-10% of the population.
  • Don't play politics with humanitarian aid. China is reportedly being much less generous with the Philippines than with the recent cylones in Bangladesh and Pakistan, again reportedly due to diplomatic issues around the possession of islands.
  • Set some targets for reducing these disaster deaths--soon. The UN High Level Panel on the next set of development goals has as one of its 4 indicators on Ending Poverty 1d. Build resilience and reduce deaths from natural disasters by x%". Get a number of x. I suggest 50--here is one indicator we know how to move quickly.
  • Don't use every natural disaster to bang the climate change drum. As my IDS colleague Tom Tanner said in his recent guest blog "don't lead with climate change. Climate change needs to be put in the context of the most important other issues". World Bank President Jim Kim was leading with this on BBC radio earlier this week and it sounded too opportunistic.

Haiyan also means "heart". The Philippines was the first country I ever visited outside of North West Europe and I know its people well enough. They have heart and courage and they will get through this.

But lightning really does strike more than once--and it projected to be stronger than ever. ASEAN governments, the ADB and the rest of the development community needs to prevent another cyclone obliterating a population the size of its own name. It can be done.

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