CEBU, Philippines — In one of the world’s most naturally deadly countries, catastrophes can originate almost anywhere. Flash floods race down mountainsides. A zigzag of tectonic plates collide below. Typhoons build in warm ocean waters and then tear westward.
And when disasters do strike, they strike hard, ravaging the Philippines’ shabby infrastructure and often leaving scores dead, injured or without homes.
The combination of geography and poverty leaves those in the Philippines at almost unequaled risk of calamity, a vulnerability that ranks among this nation’s most pressing and confounding challenges. For three straight years typhoons here have killed more than 1,000 people, despite major government initiatives to reduce disaster risk. Typhoon Haiyan, which ripped through the central Philippine islands Nov. 8, killed more than 3,500 and displaced 2 million.
Years of disasters — some capturing global attention, most not — have pushed the Philippines into an odious category: that of an undeveloped country where lives can disappear en masse, sometimes in preventable ways. If that image is to be broken, the Philippines must first contend with a set of problems common for a country pushing to develop its economy, everything from the haphazard layout of towns to the denuding of hillsides to make way for industry.
Over the past decades, Filipinos have flocked to risky, low-lying areas, havens for cheap and crammed housing. Officials here say the Philippines must also improve emergency training for distant local governments, enforce building codes and make sure that money earmarked for infrastructure ends up helping those whose homes are the most vulnerable.
“We are improving,” said Eduardo Del Rosario, head of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council. “In the next few years, we’ll be able to say that we are competent enough and we are prepared.”
Located on the Ring of Fire and in a main alleyway for typhoons, the Philippines will never be disaster-proof, experts say. But it can cut the risk. If cyclones of identical intensity were to strike Japan and the Philippines, the Philippines would have 17 times the death toll, according to the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC). Even in 2011, the year of Japan’s mega-quake and nuclear emergency, disasters forced three times the number of people from their homes in the Philippines.
Over the past two decades, the Philippines has experienced more than 300 disasters — everything from landslides to floods to volcanic eruptions. And Filipino officials say their disastersare becoming more severe, in part because of climate change. Four of this country’s 10 deadliest disasters have come in the past 10 years. The national statistics board says that typhoons — 19 per year on average — have grown increasingly more powerful since the 1970s.
Research suggests that a warmer world will lead to stronger storms. Although most scientists balk at connecting any one event with climate change, the Philippines’ representative at a climate summit in Warsaw said recently that “hell storms” like Haiyan could become the “new norm.”