Bloated corpses still lie amid the rubble. Tens of thousands of people are clamoring for food, clothing and shelter. Hundreds of villages remain effectively cut off from the outside world
At such a moment, it may seem
insensitive, or at least overly technocratic, to emphasize the need for rewriting
building codes or replanting coastal mangrove forests. Yet now is precisely the
time to focus not just on relief but also on rebuilding.
It is a truism in the aid community
that the key after any natural disaster is to “build back better.” A country
such as the Philippines — which suffers 20 typhoons a year, not to mention
earthquakes, floods and landslides — cannot reduce its physical exposure to
such risks, only its vulnerability. In the aftermath of such a tragedy, it only
makes sense to prepare better for the next one — to build stronger homes, on
higher land, with better early warning systems and evacuation routes.
Too often, though, by the time the
focus turns to long-term reconstruction, money and political will have
dissipated. New homes are slapped together in the rush to relocate victims out
of tent shelters. Politicians lose interest in projects that promise little
immediate payoff, such as restoring those mangrove forests to help protect
against storm surges.
The only way to “build back better”
is to start laying the groundwork now, when the world’s attention is fixed and
sympathy is at its peak. This is the time for national leaders to revise
building codes — as Japan does after every major disaster — so that new
construction can withstand future megastorms.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino
has been pushing a $9 billion program of infrastructure projects since 2010,
with little to show for it: Only one of them (out of 47) is anywhere near
completion. Clearing roadblocks to those projects would help attract new
investment for roads, bridges, hospitals and evacuation centers. Improving
coastal defenses and rethinking land-use planning can help protect vulnerable
In some ways, this question of
recovery is distinct from the task of relief. For that reason, Philippine
authorities might want to look at appointing an independent body dedicated
solely to such long-term questions, as Indonesia did in hard-hit Aceh after the
Such an organization could propose
ways to reduce the risk associated with future storms and quakes: offering tax
incentives for disaster victims to move to less-exposed areas, for example, or
dispensing disaster aid on the condition that recipients participate in
programs that help them survive future storms.
Relief efforts and recovery
assistance are not mutually exclusive, of course; aid groups and governments
can strive toward both goals at once.
What’s more, in at least one sense,
they are inextricably linked: For most victims of natural disasters, in the
Philippines and elsewhere, the prospect of recovery is itself a kind of relief.