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Two of the most destructive natural disasters in the past decade happened in South-East Asia.
The worst was the Indonesian tsunami in 2005 that killed in one fell swoop an estimated 170,000 people in the country and up to 250,000 more in the rest of Asia.
The more recent one was Super Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 — whose winds of up to 350 kilometres per hour made it the strongest typhoon to make landfall in recorded history — that battered central Philippines and resulted in over 8,000 people dead and still missing.
While the Indonesian tragedy was caused by an unpredictable earthquake, the natural calamity in the Philippines was predicted by weather forecasters. The typhoon serves as a warning that nature is running amok and governments need to be proactive.
These mega-disasters and many other devastating natural calamities in the Asia-Pacific in the past few years also suggest that the region is beginning to suffer more severe consequences from neglecting planning and responding only reactively.
Science has started to come to the rescue with new technology and weather surveillance systems to predict extreme weather events faster and more accurately. But sound urban planning is also key. Governments must find ways to manage urban growth and keep people away from danger zones based on convincing scientific findings.
Destroyed cities must be rebuilt on safer ground. Most major cities across South-East Asia lie on or near the coast, where they are exposed to storm surges and rising sea levels. Sound urban planning demands that we build more resilient cities with weather-resistant buildings away from the coastlines.
Learning from Indonesia
Josef Leitmann, environment coordinator of the World Bank, which funded rehabilitation efforts in Indonesia after the tsunami, summarises the lessons from this and other disasters. [1]
First, local governments should take the lead in attending to serious casualties or rapid clearing up operation such as removing debris on blocked roads so outside help can come in.
Second, local governments must heighten their awareness of disaster risks and improve their ability to coordinate their responses.
Third, destruction of urban neighbourhoods and infrastructure can be an opportunity to build back better with improved designs, facilities and services.
Fourth, enforcing building codes and ensuring that earthquake-resistant construction techniques are used in the recovery process are important mitigating measures against future disasters.
And, lastly, disaster mitigation and management should be integral elements of urban planning, such as through master plans, spatial planning and city development strategies.
From the Indonesian experience, the Philippines is also learning that community-driven development is superior to top-down reconstruction, particularly in housing.
According to Andrew Steer, former World Bank country director for Indonesia and Vietnam, community-driven housing reconstruction has proven to be of higher quality, more cost-effective and, in most cases, faster than other methods of providing housing. [2]
Sound urban planning needed  
The Philippine government originally proposed a new policy to set up a no-build zone 40 metres from the high-water mark on the coastlines of areas devastated by Haiyan. Reconstruction of houses destroyed or damaged by the typhoon was to be prohibited in these zones.
After consultations, however, Panfilo Lacson, the Philippine presidential assistant for rehabilitation and recovery, said the no-build zone would be modified to a no-dwelling zone to allow tourism-related infrastructure in the coastal areas. Local governments will issue the appropriate ordinance with respect to land use.
But mayors in Capiz and Iloilo provinces, obviously for political reasons, still question the viability and practicality of the policy. In the four provinces of the island of Panay, 350,000 people will be relocated, a move that would cost about US$134 million. [3]
The Philippine government, despite the costs, should stick to the principles of sound urban planning and insist that safety is non-negotiable. It can source funding from international donors and explore alternatives to ensure risk reduction, including coastal dykes, building of multi-floored structures that can double as evacuation facilities during emergencies, and the creation of mangrove and protective vegetation.
Two types of technologies deserve special attention for local governments and other agencies involved in the rebuilding process: solar power and rain harvesting. These are especially appropriate in South-East Asia where there is an abundant supply of sunlight and rain, which should be put to good use after each storm.
We can start tapping solar power in earnest. The Philippines has 300 days of sunshine a year and solar technology is already here to light homes, yards and streets. While solar power is still more expensive than that produced from fossil fuel, many countries have subsidised the installation of solar panels in homes. Foreign aid can finance solar panels as part of rehabilitation efforts.
Another technology to consider is rain harvesting. The Philippines has at least six months of rainy days in most parts of the country. Rainwater harvesting provides an independent water supply and will supplement the main supply, which comes from groundwater, small lakes and rivers. The country already has a rain catchment law, which mandates devices that collect rain such as water tanks in homes and public buildings, and catchment infrastructure such as ponds and small dams in communities. It is time to enforce this law, starting with the devastated areas of the Visayas that the country is rebuilding.
Crispin Maslog is a Manila-based consultant for the Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication. A former journalist, professor and environmental activist, he worked for the Press Foundation of Asia and the International Rice Research Institute.
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South-East Asia & Pacific desk.


[1] Josef Leitmann Cities and calamities: Learning from post-disaster response in Indonesia Cities and Calamities: Learning from Post-Disaster Response in Indonesia (Journal of Urban Health, 14 March 2007)
[2] World Bank Aceh post-tsunami reconstruction: Lessons learned two years on World Bank, 21 December 2006) 
[3] Nestor Burgos Jr ‘No-dwelling zones’ stump mayors (Inquirer Visayas, 22 March 2014)