Ten months after Typhoon Haiyan: Lessons from the response and how to prepare for the future

12 September 2014 10:00 - 11:30 GMT+01 (BST)
Public event
Streamed live online


Dr. Julie Hall MBE - WHO Representative to the Philippines

Justin Dell - Recovery Programme Manager, British Red Cross

Tom Newby - Emergency Shelter Team Leader, CARE International

Michael von Bertele - Humanitarian Director, Save the Children International

Chair: Sara Pantuliano - Director, Humanitarian Policy Group, ODI


How does the international community respond to humanitarian disasters? What can be learnt for the future? Will another natural disaster of a similar size to Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines again soon?

The WHO Representative to the Philippines, Dr. Julie Hall MBE joins a panel at ODI to discuss what happened before, during and after the largest typhoon ever to make landfall hit the Philippines. The panel will bring together experts to discuss what can be learnt from the national and international response and how can countries build future resilience given the growing threat of natural disasters.

Speakers will discuss the role played by UN agencies, the Philippine Government, donor governments and NGOs in the aftermath of such a huge natural disaster. They will cover issues such as:

  • What are the priorities in the first 24 hours, 1 week, 1 month?

  • How do humanitarian aid teams from all over the world coordinate on the ground?

  • What are the health impacts of the disaster at 6 months and 10 months?

  • What does it take to ‘build back better’ a community to withstand a future typhoon?

  • What does the future hold for the communities most affected?

The event will cover lessons learnt that are of importance for all stakeholders and how to take these forward as the world responds to a number of other very complex humanitarian crises. Discussions will also cover what makes the Philippines uniquely prone to such events and what the implications might be for future foreign assistance to the country.

​On September 12, the ODI hosted a panel discussion on the lessons that can be learned from the humanitarian response to Typhoon Haiyan, the largest typhoon ever to make landfall, which hit the Philippines in November 2014.

The WHO Representative to the Philippines, Dr. Julie Hall MBE, began with an overview of the humanitarian situation in the country prior to Typhoon Haiyan. There were already 750,000 people displaced due to conflict and an earthquake in the Philippines in the two months preceding Typhoon Haiyan. This meant that response services, including national and international agencies and the Philippine army, were already thinly stretched. The typhoon included winds of over 250 km/hr and waves that created a tsunami at a number of points along the coasts of different islands.

An estimated 16 million people were affected including over 400,000 who were displaced over an area that Justin Dell described as the size of Germany. Only a few days after Typhoon Haiyan, another typhoon (Zeida) hit the Philippines, slightly further south than Haiyan, which meant the airport inCebu that had been used as a hub to try to get aid into Haiyan affected areas from Manila was also out of action. At this point the Government appealed for international military and civilian assistance.

Dr. Hall described the different health priorities over the various phases or waves of needs, from the first weeks to ten months after the typhoon. The initial focus was on addressing the injured, attending to pregnant women and preventing disease outbreaks. This then shifted into the need for an immunisation campaign across the whole affected area to protect children against measles and polio. Gradually, agencies also had to respond to the rise in heart attacks and non-communicable diseases three to four months after the initial response. She also described the mental health impacts of such a natural disaster from the initial adrenalin rush to the dips in morale and energy, to the dramatic decline in health for some after 6 months.

Similarly there was a need to address not simply the immediate need for clean water but, once the municipal water supplies restarted, ensuring that the water was tested and clean to avoid the spread of further disease. Finally she discussed the ‘baby boom’ that tends to follow a disaster where more women become pregnant than previously expected, particularly amongst teenage mothers, leading to a greater demand for maternal and neo-natal care, up to the point of birth, as well as the increased demand for food and vaccines for children following their birth. All told this highlighted how health needs following a disaster continue to be felt long into the second year after the event happens.  

Following Dr. Hall’s presentation, Justin Dell and several other panellists remarked on the remarkable ability of the Philippine people to get back up and start to rebuild their lives. Tom Newby highlighted how effectively their local partners on the ground had managed to start to rebuild areas that were heavily damaged, while Justin Dell praised the local private sector for enabling organisations such as the Red Cross to deliver more food parcels than previously planned, and providing equipment and tools to clear debris and rebuild shelters.

All of the panellists stressed the importance of ensuring that national and international responders coordinated well with each other, with Michael von Bertele underlining in particular the importance of military coordination with civilian groups. The panel also discussed the effectiveness of the cluster system during the response, noting how many were jointly led by UN/NGOs and government agencies, such as joint leadership between the Department of Health and the WHO for the health cluster. Where relationships were already strong, such clusters flourished. Dr. Hall stressed the importance of such relationships at field level adding that this helps best ensure that local NGOs are involved in the response, making best use of their knowledge and expertise.

In the early phase of the response, many media outlets had criticised the response as being too slow and failed to respond to people’s urgent needs. The panel sought to dispel this misconception, noting that agencies did manage to respond but the response was severely hampered by the additional the impact of Typhoon Zeida and the overall conditions on the ground following the typhoons. In such circumstances all responders had to bring enough food, water, shelter and fuel to be self-sufficient and this was particularly challenging in areas that were cut off and where telecommunications were poor or non-existent for days.

The panel then moved on to discussing key lessons learnt during the response. Justin Dell and Tom Newby discussed the positive impact of cash for work and cash transfer schemes to help people restart their own livelihood activities. Michael von Bertele highlighted the importance of restarting education for children, which can provide them with a sense of normalcy was and is important for their mental health. He also highlighted how Save the Children and Merlin (which have now merged) are examining further how best to use their health expertise in emergencies to provide the optimum mental health care for children following emergencies.

The panel concluded by looking to the future, with recognition that the Philippines so frequently suffers natural disasters Dr. Julie Hall noted that the health facilities that best withstood the storms were those that were originally built and supported by the community. She and Dell argued that first aid training for communities was important to ensure there were sufficient capacity amongst first responders to be able to help the injured, especially when  national and international teams struggle to reach communities. Michael von Bertele also noted that it is essential to ensure there are good planning processes in place and people are aware of their roles for when disasters strike.

In terms of rebuilding in the affected areas, Tom Newby called for thinking about how to “build back safer”, rather than the commonly used term,“build back better”. He argued that it is important towork with local communities to make sure they understood what safety features should be included in repair and rebuilding work. Dr. Julie Hall wrapped up the event with gratitude to international humanitarian teams that sought to respond months after the disaster, rather than rushing immediately, while the crisis was in the media spotlight. She emphasised the importance of continuing to respond to and fund the rebuilding process in the Philippines help people recover for years to come.