Philippines: Typhoon Survivors Face Obstacles to Recovery

On November 8, 2013, Typhoon Haiyan tore a path of destruction across the Philippines. While the emergency response was successful in providing life-saving assistance, three months on, humanitarian needs remain enormous, especially with respect to the restoration of people’s livelihoods.

A lack of robust early recovery programs has left hundreds of thousands of people reliant on aid, and points to a broader problem regarding the overall efficacy of the UN’s early recovery approach to large-scale, sudden-onset natural disasters. In addition, a proposal by the Philippine government to enforce “no build zones” in typhoon-affected coastal areas in the wake of the disaster has left thousands displaced and raised numerous legal and human rights concerns.


On November 8, 2013, Typhoon Haiyan struck the Visayan Islands of the Philippines. With sustained winds of 195 miles per hour, the storm was the strongest on record and caused catastrophic devastation. Most heavily affected were the islands of Samar and Leyte, where the typhoon first made landfall, bringing with it a 15 to 19 foot storm surge.1 More than 6,000 people were killed and close to 1,800 remain missing. The storm severely damaged or destroyed 1.1 million homes and affected a total of 14 million people across 36 provinces.

Despite its strong disaster preparedness and response capability, the Philippine government accepted the international community’s offer of assistance given the magnitude of the crisis. It welcomed the deployment, in the initial phase of disaster response, of significant military assets by the U.S. and other countries. The international humanitarian community responded in full force as well. The Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), the primary mechanism for inter-agency coordination of humanitarian assistance by the UN and its partners, formally declared a system-wide Level 3 (L3) emergency – a status reserved for major sudden-onset crises caused by natural disasters or conflict which require system-wide mobilization. This triggered a substantial influx of humanitarian staff, resources, and mechanisms designed to ensure a timely and effective response. 

While the initial response to the emergency was generally viewed as successful by the government, the international community, and affected populations, humanitarian needs remain significant more than three months later. Close to six million workers were directly affected by the typhoon, 2.6 million of whom were already living at or near the poverty line. More than 33 million coconut trees were felled, putting at risk the livelihoods of over a million farming households. Nearly two-thirds of fishing communities – also extremely poor to begin with – were severely affected.

In addition, significant numbers of people are still displaced. According to the Philippines Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), as of writing, more than 900,000 people remain displaced,4 approximately 17,000 of whom are still living in evacuation centers, tent cities, and spontaneous settlements, although some have been relocated to transitional sites such as bunkhouses.


  • The United Nations Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) should commission an assessment of the Early Recovery and Livelihoods Cluster’s performance in the Haiyan response, and recommend ways to improve early recovery leadership, coordination, and effectiveness including through the use of early recovery advisors.
  • The UN Resident Coordinator/Humanitarian Coordinator (RC/HC), with the support of the United States, the United Kingdom, and other donor governments, should continue to advocate at the highest levels of the Philippine government for implementation of the recommendations contained in the Inter-Cluster Advisory on “no build zones” (NBZs). They should also provide the necessary technical and financial support to do so.
  • The Philippine government, at both the national and local level, must develop laws, policies, and guidance regarding the imposition of “no build zones” (NBZs). Such instruments must include measures to ensure that enforcement of NBZs, and the relocation of people away from these areas, is undertaken based on scientific evidence, in compliance with national and international law, and in a manner that respects the rights of affected individuals.
  • In future large-scale natural disasters, the Protection Cluster and the UN Human Settlements Program (UN-HABITAT), in cooperation with the Shelter Cluster, should immediately establish a housing, land, and property (HLP) sub-cluster, and deploy more HLP advisors to provide guidance on the ground. Where relocation is likely to occur, protection and management issues must be integrated into the strategic plans of the protection, shelter, and early recovery clusters.

Alice Thomas traveled to the Philippine islands of Leyte and Samar to assess the humanitarian response to Typhoon Haiyan in February 2014. She interviewed affected individuals, Philippine and donor government officials, UN officials, and representatives of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, international non-government organizations, and local civil society organizations.