Typhoon Haiyan: natural disaster meets armed conflict

The huge destruction in the Philippines in the November typhoon hit a poor region already long affected by violent conflict. The two are deeply related, says Colin Walch, who was conducting research in the area when the typhoon struck.

Colin Walch
26 November 2013

There is agreement among scientists that, in strict terms, there is no such thing as a "natural disaster". Why? Because the phenomenon has two main components: the hazard (the natural part) and the vulnerability (the human part). The impact of a “natural disaster” on a community - who dies, and who survives - is largely contingent on the socio-economic vulnerability of the affected society. Indeed, it is well known that the greatest impact of "natural disasters", in both developed and developing countries, is on vulnerable groups; examples are the poor African-American communities in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and now the marginalised communities in the central Philippines' islands of Samar and Leyte in the wake of typhoon Haiyan.

Typhoon Haiyan (known as typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines itself) hit Samar and Leyte on 8 November 2013. Over the last forty years, the same region - one of the country's poorest - has been affected by an internal conflict between the New People’s Army (NPA) and the Philippines' military. The two islands have become strongholds of the NPA as a result of three factors: the absence of state forces and institutions, widespread poverty and increasing marginalisation among many rural communities. To a large extent, the impoverishment of rural people in Leyte and Samar is at the root of both the conflict and the high death-toll of typhoon Haiyan. If the islands' people were richer, they would be less likely to support the NPA and better equipped to manage natural hazards.

Responding to a natural disaster in a conflict situation adds further challenges that the international community tends to overlook - although many organisations are now drawing on conflict analysis more often than before. Armed conflict complicates natural disaster relief in at least five ways:

* It diverts national and international financial and human resources that could be used for disaster risk reduction and prevention

* It means that measures to prepare for disasters and introduce early-warning systems may be neglected

* It disrupts transportation infrastructure (roads, bridges, railroad systems, electricity and communication links, reducing the ability to rapidly distribute relief

* It may undermine social cohesion, which is critical for a community's response to natural disaster

* It can create a high level of insecurity, limiting the ability of humanitarian actors to access certain communities. Moreover, humanitarian actors can themselves become targets of violence if rebel groups see them as partial and too close to the government.

The military dimension

Some of these challenges are present in the response to typhoon Haiyan. A few days after the typhoon hit, NPA combatants allegedly attacked some aid convoys and many cases of looting were reported. This led the government to establish checkpoints to restore order and ensure that the NPA was not diverting the aid for its own purposes. However, these checkpoints have also slowed relief efforts. The NPA justified its attack by saying that the relief convoy was being used by the military for counterinsurgency purposes in "their" region. The NPA did declare a ten-day ceasefire in the typhoon-devastated areas from 14-24 November (which it then extended for one month) in order to facilitate disaster relief, and ordered its troops to provide aid; but it promised vigilance regarding “hostile movement” of the military within the “territory of the people’s democratic government”.

The NPA also denounced the intervention of United States armed forces in disaster relief as a move to increase their presence in the Philippines. During Typhoon Bopha (known as typhoon Pablo in the Philippines) in the island of Mindanao in 2012, which killed up to 2,000 people, the NPA discouraged communities to receive relief from USAID. In the wake of typhoon Haiyan, the NPA argued that “If the US government were really interested in providing assistance to countries who have suffered from calamities, then it should increase its funds to civilian agencies that deal in disaster response and emergency relief, not in fattening its international military forces and taking advantage of the people’s miseries to justify their presence.”

The NPA does not in fact have a strong military presence in the area, but it still has the capacity to disrupt the work of relief organisations when they are viewed as close to the government or the US. Therefore, humanitarian access to rural places in the “territory of the people’s democratic government” is likely to be problematic. In addition, it is clear that disaster relief represents an opportunity for the Philippines' army to advance military objectives. Troops are already being deployed in sensitive areas for disaster relief. Moreover, there is growing concern that the NPA may use discontent among the local population regarding the slow government response to make new recruits. Indeed, many remote rural regions are still waiting for relief, and grievances may arise due to unequal distribution of resources by the government and international agencies, mainly operating in urban and semi-urban areas.

The peace direction

On a positive note, typhoon Haiyan may provide an opportunity to initiate new peace negotiations with the NPA, as was the case with the rebel group in the province of Aceh in Indonesia after the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. Some experts say that the NPA may have been weakened by the typhoon and perhaps are more likely to negotiate. The other stronghold of the NPA in eastern Mindanao was affected in 2012 by typhoon Bopha. The vast scale of devastation from typhoon Haiyan may create a sense of national unity, reducing the importance of divisions in society and creating ripe conditions for fresh peace talks.

Typhoon Haiyan had some of the highest winds ever recorded in a tropical cyclone - which likely is a consequence of climate change. But it is also important to remember that it is the socio-economic conditions of the areas affected that ultimately determine the number of people killed by such events. It is clear that armed conflict further deprives poor communities, making them extremely vulnerable in the face of natural disasters, and that it complicates disaster relief by restricting humanitarian space.

With all this in mind, it is easier to understand why typhoon Haiyan killed and affected so many people in the Philippines. As long as disaster is seen as fate, nature, an act of the gods, or just bad luck, tragedies like typhoon Haiyan are bound to reoccur. In the words of the expert authors of At Risk: natural hazards, people’s vulnerability and disasters  (2003): “Disasters happen when hazards hit vulnerable communities whose inherent capacity is not enough to protect itself and easily recover from its damaging effect. Disasters are the product of the social, economic and political environment”.

The implication is that today’s disaster-recovery efforts should not be about returning to the status quo before the typhoon. Instead, they should aim to rebuild more effectively by addressing the underlying causes of the society's vulnerability. By doing so, these efforts will simultaneously address the roots of the Philippines conflict, and bring a just resolution closer.

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