Typhoon HaiyanThe Philippines is victim of geography, poor infrastructure, poverty

Published 14 November 2013

Owing to its location and geography, the Philippines is one of the most natural disaster-prone countries in the world. On average the country experiences nine major typhoons and 900 earthquakes annually, and it has twenty-five active volcanoes. Poor infrastructure and pervasive poverty exacerbate the impact of disasters, making them even more deadly and destructive. “In a cruel cycle, poverty and underdevelopment make disasters worse, and disasters make poverty and underdevelopment worse,” one observer notes.

The Philippines has been subjected to one natural disaster after another, and the impact of these disasters has been excerbated by geography, poor infrastructure, and poverty.

The Joint Typhoon Warning Center, (JTWC) reports that the Philippines experiences six to nine major typhoons every year, and the World Bank notes that almost 900 earthquakes affect the region annually. These typhoons and earthquakes are accompanied by the menacing presence of twenty active volcanoes.

Disasters in the Philippines have proven more deadly compared to similar disasters in other countries. The Philippines led the world in disaster mortality in 2012 with more than 2,000 people killed, while China was second with just 802, according to the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED).

Slate reports that the Philippines’ poor infrastructure makes the country even more vulnerable to natural disasters. Damaged roads make it difficult for relief efforts to aid victims. Just last month, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake in the central Philippine Visayas region killed at least 100 people and left at least 300 injured. Gwendolyn Pang, secretary-general of the Philippine Red Cross told IRIN that there were many difficulties operating in a region with poor infrastructure. “We are trying to reach the affected areas, but it’s very difficult. The entire island province of Bohol is without electricity, while telecommunications are spotty. Roads are not passable while at least 10 bridges on Bohol have also been damaged.”

Only 20 percent of the country’s roads are paved, and the World Economic Forum, in its Global Competitiveness Report, has identified “inadequate supply of infrastructure” as a primary obstacle in the country’s path to sustained economic growth.

Rapid economic growth in recent years has done little for a large share of the Philippines’ population. About 40 percent of the population lives below poverty level, unemployment is high, and a third of the country’s workers are in agriculture, making their livelihood vulnerable to extreme weather. The World Bank’s report on Natural Disaster Risk Management in the Philippines explained why poverty has intensified the country’s natural disasters: “Rapid urban growth and lack of tenure, for instance, have forced many to live and work in high-risk areas, such as on the shores of Navotas or flanks of active volcanoes. Families may have little choice but to return to such areas post disaster even when resettlement options are available because of the importance of proximity to place of work.”

Slatenotes that President Benigno Aquino declared infrastructure a top priority when he took office in 2010. The government increased spending on infrastructure by 47 percent in the first eight months of 2013 ($3.9 billion) to improve roads, airports, and public works. The country’s Department of Public Works and Highways said that more than 11 percent of its overall national budget in 2012 ($25.2 million) would go towards building “long-term solutions” to the country’s perennial flooding during the monsoon season, typically from May to early January.

As the Philippines develops its infrastructure, it simultaneously falls victim to natural disasters which destroy the infratructure it has built. The 7.2 magnitude earthquake that hit Bohol Province in October of this year caused more than $51 million in damage, and just as the country began to recover from that disaster, it experiences another this November.

“In a cruel cycle, poverty and underdevelopment make disasters worse, and disasters make poverty and underdevelopment worse,” Slate concluded.