Battered every year by typhoons and prone to earthquakes, mudslides, floods and volcanic eruptions, the Philippines is more vulnerable to natural disasters than many other countries throughout the world. As such, it is crucial for the country’s economic development to learn to better manage its disaster risks and minimise casualties and destruction. Weak defences against disasters is increasingly being recognised as a hurdle to economic development, especially in remote areas and for the lowest-income segment of the population.

In its “World Risk Report 2014”, the UN University’s Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS), gave the Philippines a natural disaster exposure rating of 52.46%, significantly worse than the next-most exposed major country, Japan, rated at 45.91%. The institute’s exposure rating takes into account only the risk of natural disasters happening, not how well the country copes. Only the small island nations of Vanuatu and Tonga, with populations around 250,000 and 100,000, respectively, are more prone to natural disasters than the Philippines, according to the report.

ALTERNATIVE PATH: Although Japan proves that geography is not fate, there is a distressing correlation between the UNU-EHS’ natural disaster exposure ratings and income levels. The vast majority of highly prone countries are middle-income or low-income. Besides Japan, the only other major high-income countries with exposure ratings above 20% were the Netherlands, Greece and Chile.

Indeed, high rates of natural disasters can be a kind of income and development trap, as countries that lack the capital and economic efficiency to respond tend to be the most set back by disasters when they strike. The UNU-EHS also rates countries by what it calls vulnerability to natural disasters, which measures a nation’s capability to mitigate them or lack thereof. Although its ability to cope with disasters is far from the bottom of the rankings, the Philippines’ vulnerability rating of 53.85% is still below the median, and compares to ratings below 30% for most high-income countries. The result is an overall natural disaster risk rating that stands out over other major countries. In the UNU-EHS’s World Risk Index, a composite of exposure and vulnerability, the Philippines was rated 28.25%, well above the next highest-rated countries, Guatemala and Bangladesh, with ratings of 20.68% and 19.37%, respectively. Overall the Philippines had the second-highest risk in facing natural disaster behind Vanuatu.

The difficulties that the Philippines faces and its lack of preparedness for the worst were made devastatingly clear in November 2013 by Typhoon Haiyan, one of the most powerful tropical cyclones in history with the highest sustained wind speeds at landfall of any cyclone ever recorded. Typhoon Haiyan’s combination of intense winds and storm surges over low-lying areas laid waste to large areas of the Western Visayas, killing 6300 by a conservative official count and around 7500 when including people who went missing. The worst hit areas were the island of Leyte and Tacloban, a coastal city of more than 200,000 people that was largely flattened by a stormsurge flood with waves as high as 7 metres.

AGENCIES IN CHARGE: The tragedy of Haiyan has led to a broad-ranging re-examination of disaster management policies by the government, media and civil society. The Commission on Audit (CoA), a constitutionally mandated government watchdog, has produced multiple reports reviewing response and disaster management policies generally. It mostly praised the government’s efforts, but pointed to bureaucratic red tape holding up disaster relief. The report said, “The bureaucratic structure and reliance on written guide permeate the difficult situation of being able to respond immediately.”

Disaster management is coordinated by the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, which has the authority to direct government agencies and decide how to allocate resources. The council’s National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Plan, published in 2011 and meant to guide policy until 2028, was generally praised as forward-looking. However, the core difficulty for the Philippines in dealing with threats like Haiyan is the large amount of resources and the high level of institutional preparedness required to be able to organise a large-scale evacuation in the short period of time that authorities typically have between the recognition of a major storm threat and landfall.

COMMUNICATING RISK: Evacuation coordination and the willingness of people to evacuate have improved since Haiyan, and meteorological forecasts have been enhanced as international cooperation has grown. But it will continue to be difficult for disaster management officials to predict early enough where they need to evacuate people from, as even the biggest storms make surprise last-minute changes in direction or intensity. One of the main reasons people die in hurricanes is that some choose to ignore evacuation orders, often because they have experienced previous evacuations they felt were unnecessary. Another persistent problem is the extreme vulnerability of the poorest segment of the population, who are driven by poverty to crowd in areas that are most flood-prone and who often live in flimsy shanty housing. People from such communities tend to lose what little they have when natural disasters strike, which then forces them into temporary shelters with other families.

According to the UNU-EHS’s 2014 risk report, chaotic urbanisation has led to 540,000 people living in poorly protected riverbank zones that are prone to flooding. Crowding along canals can be so intense that it clogs the circulation of water and exacerbates flooding. More than 1000 shanty dwellers died in 2009 when two powerful typhoons hit Manila in the same year. The government has struggled to find a way to remove these slums, as initial plans for outright evictions drew international condemnation. A second plan to entice people away from slums with housing subsidies paid in cash was protested by some locals who felt that rewarding illegal squatters would only exacerbate the problem. The government’s latest plans include working with international charities, such as Habitat for Humanity, to move people into cheaply built, medium-rise buildings in the outer district of Metro Manila. The government pays the up-front costs of P400,000 ($9000) per apartment which the new owners must repay over 25 years.

TACKLING HURDLES: As the CoA stressed in one of its reviews, the most important shortfall is the Philippines’ lack of a comprehensive emergency management system that allows it to deal with a catastrophic disaster on the scale of Haiyan. In its 2014 report, “Disaster Management Practices in the Philippines: An Assessment”, the commission said disaster management agencies had “limited capacity in terms of staff, equipment and other logistics such as warehouses, delivery vehicles, lack of a systematic distribution system, and an inadequately trained and equipped response team”.

Although typhoons on the scale of Haiyan are relatively rare, so-called super typhoons equivalent to American category 4 or 5 hurricanes hit the Philippines regularly. Haiyan was the fifth typhoon to kill more than 1000 people in the Philippines since 2006. The north-west Pacific consistently has the world’s largest and most powerful cyclones, and the Philippines and Japan are on the front lines of super typhoon landfalls, where most of the damage is done. On top of that, the Philippines is prone to powerful earthquakes. The Bohol earthquake of October 2013 in the Central Visayas – just a month before Haiyan – killed 222 people and displaced some 360,000, according to the UN. The country’s deadliest quake was in 1976 on the southern Moro Gulf, which killed at least 5000 people, mostly in a resulting tsunami.

There is also the danger presented by volcanic eruptions and mudslides. Eruptions themselves are rarely deadly, with the exception of the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo, near Clark and Angeles, which killed 847 people in one of the biggest eruptions globally in recorded history. The massive ash fallout also devastated the agricultural sector. However, the more frequent threat from volcanoes is mudslides, known locally as lahar, in which heavy rains break loose old deposits of ash from the sides of volcanoes that can then come sliding down valleys as giant walls of mud. The worst recent lahar was set off by a typhoon in 2006 on Mayon Volcano and buried whole villages, killing at least 1000.

Overall the UN International Strategy for Disaster Relief counted 363 natural disasters in the Philippines during 1980-2010 that annually affected an average of 3.8m people and killed an average of 1000 per year. Storms accounted for about three-quarters of damages and casualties, while mudslides, floods and earthquakes accounted for 7-8% each.