By Mark Toldo, Communications Specialist at HHI’s Program on Resilient Communities
One of the stark realities that the Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) pandemic has magnified is how frail the lives of the poor are in fragile settings, especially during overlapping crises. In the Philippines where COVID-19 cases have been rising to over a million as of writing, the pandemic alone has been hitting the poor hardest. Many of those living below the poverty line have been also frequently hit by disasters and other effects of the rapidly changing climate. These compounded risks exacerbate vulnerability and increased needs, especially among the poor.
“Our need for various resources that could help us improve our tenacity over disasters and other challenges has really intensified since the pandemic began,” Mercy Raymundo, a local community leader of Barangay Ipil in the province of Camarines Sur, recently told the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) in the local language.
Other coastal community leaders can relate to Mercy’s realization, like Pedro Calumpiano of Barangay Maslog in Eastern Samar province. “Our pre-pandemic needs remain the same and we need them much more now because the pandemic has affected people’s sources of income.”
The Philippines, an archipelago situated in the western Pacific Ocean, is considered the country most at risk from the climate crisis. As the country is composed of 7,641 islands, the majority of the population live in coastal zones that are highly vulnerable to storms, flooding, rising sea levels, saltwater intrusion, and other climate change impacts.
HHI studied the resilience of local coastal communities before the pandemic struck the Philippines in early 2020. The research involved field visits and in-depth discussions with leaders, partners, and residents of select communities. A part of the research included identifying the unaddressed needs of the communities themselves for improved preparedness, coping, and recovery from natural hazards.
Finance and livelihoods
Many families inhabiting in coastal zones rely heavily on the bounties of the sea. But in the past few years, making a living has become tougher. With the diminishing fish supply, most of the fisherfolk spend more hours farther on the sea just to obtain sufficient catch. This has made fishing a more arduous and expensive livelihood for them.
During weather disturbances such as storms, fishing may not be feasible for days or weeks, leaving families penniless in times of disaster. In some communities, saltwater intrusion has been affecting farmlands too, leading to more financial losses for small-scale farmers.
Unsurprisingly, coastal communities emphasized their need for financial and livelihood support to help them better prepare for and cope with natural hazards, and now, with the COVID-19 pandemic too.
At the height of the pandemic last year, the Philippine economy plunged into recession and left some 7.2 million Filipinos unemployed, and the unemployment rate at its highest at 17.6% in April 2020. The Philippine government imposed one of the world’s longest and strictest COVID-19 lockdowns. It has released pandemic cash aid for select poor households nationwide ranging from $100 to $160 per household, which has been temporarily beneficial for low-income families. However, many households including those in coastal zones and those who have not received aid yet, still struggle as the nation continues to fight the global pandemic.
Many urban workers who have lost their jobs have returned to their original residence in rural areas and coastal communities. In Maslog, many of those who went back have since tried earning through the already tough job that is fishing.
“With the temperamental sea [bigger waves] and dwindling fish catch, many are pushed to look for alternative livelihoods. However, the lockdown restrictions implemented periodically due to the rising COVID-19 cases in our province make it tough to do so,” said Pedro, a fisherfolk association leader in Maslog.
Due to their frequent exposure to natural hazards, the already financially insecure households in coastal zones, such as those in Maslog, are confronted with an added financial burden. This makes recovery harder for them. These challenges are worsened by the lack of or poor access to basic services even in urban areas like in Sitio Aplaya in the country’s capital Manila.
Sitio Aplaya is one of the residential blocks in Baseco Compound that has been routinely exposed to storm surges, flooding, and disaster-related diseases such as leptospirosis and colds. Despite being located in the metropolis, the residents reported the need for food and medical assistance, and stable access to electricity and potable water.
Baseco, an informal settlement area situated in the Port Area of Manila, is regarded as one of the biggest urban poor communities in the country, with roughly 60,000 population. The problems faced by the community are made even more complex by a 318-hectare reclamation project in the Manila Bay, which threatens eviction for the residents of Baseco.
Sitio Aplaya’s immense need for basic services is something that the people of Del Rosario Compound can definitely relate to. Del Rosario Compound is a constantly flooded neighborhood in the nearby city of Valenzuela. The presence of rivers, reclamation activities, and road constructions in the surrounding areas are seen to have aggravated flooding not only in the compound but in many areas of Barangay Coloong—the community where the neighborhood sits.
Overall, access to basic services is critical to Filipinos’ resilience. Similar to the people of Sitio Aplaya and Del Rosario Compound, if given adequate funds, most Filipinos would choose to store more food, water, flashlights, and cooking supplies in anticipation of a disaster, HHI’s 2017 survey found.
In the same survey, 18% reported experiences of depression or trauma associated with disasters. Yet, less than 1% had received any form of treatment or therapy. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the significance of mental healthcare worldwide. The Philippine government noted that, so far, about 1/6 of the country’s population, or 17 million Filipinos are suffering from depression during the pandemic.
Mental health issues are also common in the coastal communities that HHI studied especially following strong typhoons, landslides, and drought. Unfortunately, little to no mental health support is provided to these communities yet. While the extent of impacts the pandemic has on the vulnerable populations’ mental health is yet to be known, the need for mental health services is undeniably huge.
Training and disaster response equipment
Anxiety and trauma from distressing disaster experiences are common among the people of Barangay Santo Niño in Biliran Province, specifically its community leaders. Local community leaders usually act as first responders in emergencies within their community. In Santo Niño, they even serve as rescuers for trapped residents in times of massive flooding and landslides. Unfortunately, they lack proper training and equipment to conduct disaster and emergency response. This is why this coastal community, like many others, needs training in rescue and emergency operations, first aid, and disaster preparedness drills, among others.
Santo Niño’s earnest need and value for education and training is relevant to 30% of Filipinos nationwide who reported that training, education, or awareness would help households better prepare for disasters. However, nationwide participation in training on disaster preparedness and response was low at only 20% of the population in 2017, according to the HHI survey.
Training is important to community resilience, but so are the equipment and tools necessary to perform disaster management and response. This was particularly stressed by the residents of the coastal communities we studied like in Barangay Ipil.
In 2019, Ipil, a humble community along a lake and a mountain, was hit with a typhoon-induced landslide, killing 11 indigenous people.
Although the threat of a landslide has been discovered beforehand, the people did not have enough resources and tools to prepare and evacuate immediately adding to the sense of grief and trauma. Like other coastal communities, tools and equipment such as water ambulance, life jackets, rescue equipment, and go bags could significantly contribute to their preparedness. For these vulnerable populations, access to such materials could as well spell the difference between life and death.
Infrastructure and facilities
Houses flattened to the ground, pieces of fishing boats scattered around, sea walls pounded into fragments—this tragic scene is not new to the residents of Barangay Malobago in Rapu-Rapu Island. Similar to Ipil, they have been exposed to routine typhoons, flooding, and rain-induced landslides for many years now.
Malobago is a remote community with less than a thousand population in the province of Albay. As many houses here are made of light materials, they are easily knocked down by strong typhoon winds and storm surges.
The residents of Malobago like those in other coastal communities have reported that larger materials such as infrastructure and facilities are also critical to their resilience and survival during disasters.
Nationwide, strengthening of homes is one of the top priorities for Filipino households if they have enough funds for it, according to the HHI survey. This might be because most households across the nation have had their homes partially destroyed due to a disaster.
Aside from having more stable homes, coastal communities have also expressed the need for proper evacuation centers, accessible community clinics or hospitals, higher dikes, stronger sea walls, toilets, water pumping facilities, and garbage recycling facilities, among others.
Policy and information
Better disaster information and clearer policy guidance are needed to improve community resilience. This has been pointed out by coastal communities, largely by the residents of the four communities comprising the Gigantes Islands in Iloilo province.
After the devastation of one of the most powerful typhoons ever recorded, Super Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, humanitarian aid flocked to the island chain. The robust support received by the residents helped them better recover from the wrath of Haiyan. Eventually, their white sand beaches emerged as tourist destinations. However, many issues still confront the communities like water shortage, saltwater intrusion, illegal fishing, lack of alternative livelihoods, and improper waste disposal.
The residents believe these issues can be solved with enhanced local policies, information dissemination, and unity among the residents and local government leaders to protect both the people and the environment from the impacts of the climate crisis. Residents said that these are necessary for supporting local disaster management, response, and aid for small islands like Gigantes, that are isolated from the mainland where aid and support commonly come from.
Overall, the coastal communities that HHI studied have emphasized the need for timely disaster information dissemination, community organizing, zoning plans, structures for marine protected areas (MPAs), and more holistic tourism plans.
HHI case study report
Many uncertainties are surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, especially for already at-risk areas like coastal communities. What is certain now is that their needs for preparedness and resilience to disasters and climate change remain relevant and even more critical in overcoming the profound effects of both natural hazards and the ongoing pandemic.
This blog discusses only some of the vital information from HHI’s coastal community resilience research in the Philippines. We are excited to share with humanitarians, governments, and academics more about the said research in a case study report entitled “Experiences of Coastal Communities in Climate Change and Disasters” that will be published soon. This research is led and authored by HHI Program on Resilient Communities Director Vincenzo Bollettino, PhD; Program Manager Ariana Marnicio, MPH; and Philippines Project Lead Lea Ivy Manzanero, MA.