High ground: disaster risk and resilience in the Philippines

Harvard Humanitarian Initiative

By Kriszia Enriquez

When does resettlement make sense?

Settlements in the Philippines are ubiquitous, and growing. Located in hazard-prone coastal areas, rivers, canals, creeks, or dumpsites, settlements are especially vulnerable to shocks and stresses, exacerbated by threats from climate change. Comprised of makeshift shelters, these communities suffer higher rates of destruction from climate-related disasters. In catastrophe’s wake, they are disproportionately affected by disease outbreaks due to high population density and inadequate sanitation. In some cases, lack of access to both formal education and disaster risk management strategies reduces capacity to cope with threats.

An estimated 44 percent of the Philippines’ population resides in urban areas. More than 40 percent of the country’s 1.4 million informal settlers are concentrated in the capital and mega-city, Metro Manila, where 544,000 families reside in informal settlements. While many settlements also exist in rural areas, this urban number is only expected to grow.

These trends result in difficult decisions. The government frequently mitigates risk to settlement communities by relocating families to safer housing in areas less prone to disaster. Resettlement comes with risks and benefits – which this study aims to identify and explore through the narratives study of two communities. GK-Kalayaan Village in Gabaldon resettled in 2005 after landslides and flooding caused by consecutive typhoons washed away homes of many residents, claiming scores of lives. Sitio Kislap, an urban community in Quezon City, has not resettled despite increasing threats from fire and flooding, instead pursuing avenues for strengthen infrastructure and capacity in its current location. Sitio means sub-barangay, or community. Through their stories, this work seeks to answer the questions: When is it more beneficial for communities to resettle than to remain? And what measures can ensure that resettlement does more good than harm for affected populations?

A community resilience policy framework

The aim of disaster risk management in the Philippines is preventing injury or loss of life, termed “zero-casualty.” Mortality in disaster’s aftermath is historically highest among vulnerable populations. Informal settlements located in hazard-prone areas thus became critical areas for these policies – settlements in which the country’s worst disasters have washed away homes, property, and lives.

Among these, the Ormoc flash floods of 1991, the Infanta Quezon-Nueva Ecija- Aurora landslide-flooding of 2005, and the Guinsaugon landslide in 2004 claimed 2,000 lives each, followed by Typhoon Ondoy in 2009, which left a death toll of 500 in Metro Manila. This burden was born primarily by populations in informal settlements.

In 2010, with the passage of the Philippines Disaster Risk Reduction and Management (DRRM) Act the Philippines government’s zero-casualty strategy evolved to include additional protections for vulnerable people and a focus on these areas. Intended to address both disaster preparedness and response, the new DRRM policy framework aims “to uphold the people’s constitutional rights to life and property by addressing the root causes of vulnerability to disasters… and building resilience of local communities to disasters including climate change impacts."

The resilience framework drew resources from new stakeholders, including NGOs and the private sector. Public-private partnerships play a critical role in policy implementation – both in cases of resettlement and building infrastructural capacity in existing settlements. Their provision of support for capacity building in areas including health, education, and housing, and constitute a primary focus of this study.

To explore these dynamics, GK-Kalayaan and Sitio Kislap were selected for a comparative case study from a larger sample of communities referred by DisasterNet Philippines’ partners and networks. They were chosen to include one urban and one rural case for comparative purposes. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are present in both communities, and each has a history of disaster and displacement.

Primary data were obtained through interviews conducted with 23 key informants in Gabaldon, Nueva Ecija, and Kislap, Fairview Quezon City, including community members, NGOs, and local government officials. Secondary data is drawn from reports by national and local governments as well as NGOs. This included reports from public and private entities central to disaster response efforts in Gabaldon and Sitio Kislap, including Gawad Kalinga, an NGO that provides housing to homeless and marginalized families; and DAMPA (Damayan ng Maralitang Pilipinong Api, meaning Cooperation of Marginalized Filipinos), a network offering capacity building and support for sectoral causes including health, education, and housing.

History of Disaster

GK-Kalayaan Village in Gabaldon, Nueva Ecija

Situated in the rural town of Gabaldon, a low-lying community in the Pampanga River basin of the Sierra Madre mountains, GK-Kalayaan village is home to 120 families. Gabaldon is a middle-income municipality, and its residents support themselves primarily through agricultural production. Bereft of vegetation, the Sierra Madre offer little natural protection from the heavy rain waters which frequently threaten and flood Gabaldon and neighboring communities.

Four consecutive typhoons pummeled Gabaldon in 2004, taking 2,000 lives and causing massive floods and landslides that left the town inundated for a week before the waters receded. Gawad Kalinga was among the NGOs, public and private sector organizations that responded to the disaster. In partnership with Ateneo de Manila University, Gawad Kalinga approached the local government to initiate a resettlement program for the affected population. Located 11 kilometers away from the poblacion or town proper and 12 kilometers away and up a nearby mountain from Barangay South Poblacion and Sawmill, where the majority of the beneficiaries previously resided, the resettlement area unveiled in 2005 is named GK-Kalayaan. GK references Gawad Kalinga’s initiative. Kalayaan means freedom, a nod to the unveiling’s coincidence with the Philippines’ Independence Day.

GK-Kalayaan is built on a three-hectare lot donated to the Gabaldon government by a private local resident. In preparation for building the 100 homes in which its residents now live, geologists from the government's Mines and Geosciences Bureau, as well as a Jesuit research arm called Environmental Science for Social Change, surveyed the land as part of an initiative of Ateneo de Manila University. They determined it a viable settlement area, safe from threats and disasters.

Sitio Kislap in Quezon City, Metro Manila

Sitio Kislap is a community of about 600 informal settler families living along Gabi Creek which feeds into the Tullahan River. The settlement is situated in Barangay Fairview, one of the largest barangays in the urbanized, high income Quezon City, home to one of the highest concentration of informal settlers in the Metro Manila.

Settled in the early 1990s, elders recall a time when Sitio Kislap was home to only around 50 families. Due to commercial and residential development from government housing projects, and in-migration from residents’ relatives, it has ballooned to twelve times that size. Development projects are regulated informally, approved through consultation with local elders.

Sitio Kislap’s low-lying location and densely packed housing expose its population to high risk of floods and fire, respectively. According to residents, Kislap’s worst flooding was brought about by Typhoon Ondoy in 2009 and habagat, or low-pressure system monsoon winds, in 2012. Most homes were destroyed by floodwaters, and displaced families spent the week in a community center which served as a makeshift shelter. Smaller-scale flooding from typhoons is a common occurrence in Sitio Kislap, where makeshift houses near the creek are particularly prone to water damage, and drainage is constricted by garbage and commercial buildings. To cope, residents remain alert during heavy rains, and evacuate to a basketball court on higher ground, 10 meters from the creek, when flooding threats become severe.

Fire hazards are pervasive in Sitio Kislap due primarily to densely packed houses, shared wiring, and informal power connections. According to local fire officials, it is common for multiple settler families to tap into a single legal meter to connect their households, which often results in short circuits and increased risk of fire.

Common Themes

NGOs as facilitators of community participation

NGOs in both communities played pivotal roles in enabling community participation in resettlement and disaster preparedness initiatives. By promoting a sense of ownership and cooperation among stakeholders, NGO involvement supported long-term efforts to protect against threats from disaster. GK-Ateneo worked in Gabaldon to organize beneficiaries’ participation in both resettlement and post-resettlement processes. In Kislap, DAMPA coordinated disaster preparedness initiatives to mitigate consequences of frequent flooding.

In Gabaldon, the imprint of Gawad Kalinga’s focus on social cohesion was apparent through their facilitation of beneficiary participation in active rebuilding of new homes. Termed labor sweat equity, this practice entails engaging beneficiaries of resettlement programs in the work of construction, site clean-up, and cooking for others. Families may earn the right to lease a home in the resettlement through 1000 hours of service. Project partners including students and donors joined beneficiaries, who came from several different barangays in Gabaldon, in the work of rebuilding. This process of community building, meant to bridge ties between the disparate groups of new residents and other stakeholders, is termed the bayanihan challenge by Gawad Kalinga, and rooted in Christian values including sacrifice, generosity, and cooperation.

Gawad Kalinga remained beyond the initial rebuilding process to support community development within GK-Kalayaan. In the early resettlement phase, helped the community elect leaders, agree upon rules, and plan community projects including construction of a church, school, and basketball court. During the extended post-resettlement period, Gawad Kalinga engages in a process termed handholding, which involves facilitating team-building sessions, resolving disputes, and identifying economic opportunities for the community. Gawad Kalinga’s involvement in such work may last for an indeterminate duration, with the ultimate goal of allowing the community to build confidence and sustain itself without external support.

In GK-Kalayaan, this approach successfully facilitated the logistics of community resettlement. There is little evidence, however, to indicate whether efforts to engender better cooperation will yield results in future disaster preparedness. While the strong bonds formed during the resettlement process motivate many residents to remain in GK-Kalayaan, better economic opportunities in more urban areas provide a strong pull to leave, especially for younger residents. This tension highlights the importance of considering proximity to economic opportunity as a critical factor in resettlement decisions.

NGO involvement in community building was also a critical theme in Kislap’s disaster response and recovery. DAMPA facilitated community organization in Kislap, helping to elect leaders, conduct community risk mapping and disaster preparedness activities, and strengthen joint disaster preparedness projects with the local government. Through this process, Kislap’s leaders successfully lobbied for the building of retaining walls to reduce the community’s vulnerability to flooding.

DAMPA support extends to community building activities less directly tied to disaster response, including programs such as “Edukasyon sa Kalye,” an academic tutoring program which brings together students in different age groups and integrates disaster preparedness into its curriculum. In education, waste management, and other initiatives aimed to reduce vulnerability to floods and fires, DAMPA involvement eases communication between Kislap’s leaders and the local government, highlighting the critical role NGOs can play in motivating buy-in from community stakeholders to strengthen disaster preparedness and response.

Preference for land ownership

Housing is of primary concern for residents of both GK-Kalayaan and Sitio Kislap. As such, threat of future disasters or eviction due to government policies are drivers of resettlement site selection. In GK-Kalayaan, residents resettled under an agreement that they would be allowed to occupy the homes and land for free, in perpetuity, in the form of a “Notice of Land and Lot Award.” While the land and homes remain under government ownership, these agreements offered a necessary degree of stability and security.

In Sitio Kislap, most informal settlers take on intermittent work, and lack the financial stability to purchase land, which is expensive in Quezon City. Home ownership is offered under a future resettlement plan for Kislap residents, but requires hefty monthly payments. Many residents view securing education and employment for their children as the best path to home ownership. By putting their children through school, they hope to eventually have enough family income to own a home. In both communities, finding a long-term housing is among primary drivers of community development, and there is a clear preference for land ownership – though the ways in which residents weigh secure housing against availability of economic opportunities vary.

Divergent Trends

Local Government engagement in resettlement

While local governments are pivotal to disaster risk management in the Philippines, the degree to which they engage varies between the two communities. Philippine law mandates that local governments take measures to provide safe and affordable housing, basic services, and employment opportunities for marginalized communities. This includes taking initiative to identify need for resettlement programs through consultation with local residents, and to implement them in cooperation with the National Housing Authority. In GK-Kalayaan, the local government of Gabaldon led the process of identifying and reaching out to beneficiaries. In Sitio Kislap, the Quezon City government went a step further, formulating plans for resettlement options and funding disaster mitigation programs, including retaining walls to prevent flooding. Variations in funding, land, and human capital are primarily accountable for this difference. When local governments have the necessary resources, they tend to lead resettlement processes; when they lack capacity, NGOs such as Gawad Kalinga often fill the gaps.

This was the case in GK-Kalayaan. While the Gabaldon government identified beneficiaries, Gawad Kalinga played a leading role in commissioning hazard assessments of the resettlement area, community development, recruiting a labor force of beneficiaries as well as volunteers from Manila and corporate foundations, and importantly, construction materials. The local government’s role following resettlement remained limited to legal matters and dispute resolution; Gawad Kalinga, even ten years later, continues to provide many basic services and community support – including education, medical missions, and trainings to help residents access economic opportunities. Gawad Kalinga sponsored construction of a primary school, and runs a scholarship program for displaced students, which has grown from seven students in its initial cohort to supporting 76 students at present.

Gawad Kalinga employs a dedicated staff who promote social cohesion through team-building activities, including a community development officer responsible for GK-Kalayaan along with two additional resettlement sites. Each resettlement site is also assigned a project director to liaise between the local government and the community. In response to concerns that these dynamics may create dependency on donors, GK-Ateneo staff are restricted to facilitation roles, short of engagement in any community decision-making. This level of NGO support also raises concerns regarding resource scarcity and scalability. The Gawad Kalinga model works well in smaller towns like Gabaldon, where well-resourced NGOs have capacity to function effectively. Using GK-Kalayaan as a model for other resettlements proves a tenuous plan, however, when considering the needs of larger populations against limited capacity in the NGO community.

Such constraints help explain why the Quezon City government plays a more consequential role in the larger, urban setting of Sitio Kislap. Critical to its involvement was identification of potential near-site or off-site resettlement locations. One such option is Bistekville, a site in Kislap that is appealing for its proximity to economic opportunities yet may prove more expensive for the local government due to the high cost of land in the city and necessary measures to mitigate threats from flooding.

For those unable to afford on-site resettlement, the Quezon City government, in collaboration with the National Housing Authority, has begun implementing off-site options. Typically, local governments take responsibility for consulting with settlers to identify beneficiaries, while the National Housing Authority takes the lead on selecting locations for off-site resettlement. As in the case of Sitio Kislap, off-site options are often more affordable for local governments supporting urban resettlement efforts. Considering both on-site and off-site housing solutions, with local governments playing an integral role, is thought to lead to more sustainable, scalable outcomes. While the Gabaldon model is better resourced, the dynamics of Sitio Kislap’s resettlement debate require more direct collaboration between communities and governments – with potentially more replicable results.

Availability of resettlement options

Stakeholders aside, geographical and circumstantial constraints also play a key role in shaping resettlement options – namely, whether, and where viable land is available. In Gabaldon, the opportunity to work with GK-Ateneo emerged as an obvious solution amidst post-disaster crisis. The partnership moved forward quickly, and Gabaldon residents came to view free-lease housing arrangements in GK-Kalayaan as the only option for secure housing.

The process played out differently in Quezon City, where the local government in collaboration with the National Housing Authority, communities, and NGOs, can afford time to weigh the viability of multiple resettlement options. Both the on-site and off-site housing options are designed for mortgage homes to settlers for eventual full ownership – there is no option to lease. Residents agree to payment plans ranging from 15 to 30 years to compensate the government for the cost of land and construction.

Security versus economic opportunity

The security of GK-Kalayaan housing comes at a high cost – in terms of both hours of sweat equity labor needed to earn a free-lease, and dislocation from economic opportunities. Many settlers who chose to discontinue working in the sweat equity program cited high cost of public transportation and scheduling conflicts, opting instead to live in areas closer to jobs. Those who completed the program to secure one of 120 perpetual free-leases in the village expressed a sense of immense satisfaction that their hard work had paid off, highlighting a clear divergence in priorities between those who preferred economic stability over housing security, and vice versa.

Those who chose to move to GK-Kalayaan noted its drawbacks – adjustment to longer commutes to work, school, shopping for basic goods, and health care. Some working fathers choose to rent a separate room near their place of employment in order to ease the weekly commuting schedule. Due to its greater distance from the area’s main power source, electricity is also more expensive in GK-Kalayaan. Yet most residents say the resettlement support they receive from GK-Ateneo offsets these costs. Furthermore, residents have found that GK-Kalayaan is better protected from flood damage than their previous homes. Typhoon Lando in 2015 inflicted little to no flooding on GK-Kalayaan, despite pervasive damage to Gabaldon. The typhoon did, however, cause lasting damage to the village’s only potable water source. GK-Ateneo provided water filters to village families so they would not need to make the 15-minute trek to the nearest alternative water source.

Conversely, residents of Sitio Kislap have spent nearly three decades coping with constant risk of flooding and fire in order to remain near economic opportunities. Rhythms of daily life have adapted to mitigate these threats. The community participates in trainings to recognize early warning signs of impending typhoons and floods. When water levels begin to rise, residents evacuate lower floors of their homes, often storing valuables in higher stories of their neighbors’ houses when they take refuge on the community basketball court. Unsurprising, solid waste management to improve drainage is a major political issue.

Most residents credit these adaptations to the strong social support networks they have formed. It is easier to tolerate the risk of disaster knowing social and monetary support is always in reach. Kislap’s urban location offers easy access to social services provided by the local government, food markets, education, and health care. Families spend minimal time commuting, with many women working in childcare or laundry and cleaning services at nearby universities and high income households, and men employed in construction or as bus or jeepney drivers.

Sitio Kislap has not experienced fatalities from major typhoons, due in part to well-practiced evacuation procedures. Residents attribute their ability to cope with the devastation of Typhoon Ondoy primarily to the availability of jobs, social support networks, and basic services, which helped them regain financial footing. As the local government weighs the costs and benefits of resettlement, residents have chosen to remain. While they expect the resettlement policy will result in their eventual eviction, they hope the government plans for on-site or near-site resettlement will accommodate most residents, minimizing displacement. While these options are more expensive policies to implement, many Kislap residents believe the social and financial structures they would preserve make on-site or near-site resettlement more sustainable options for their community.

To ease the financial burden of on-site resettlement, Kislap residents advocate for alternatives to outright home ownership, including perpetual and conditional leases, or rent-to-own modalities. For those who cannot afford to stay in the city, offsite resettlement remains an option – yet many view this as a viable retirement plan for older family members who no longer need to live proximate to work as they are supported by younger generations living in the city. To prepare for this, some families choose to continue renting in the city while simultaneously paying for offsite resettlement, finding urban job availability to be worth the additional expense.

Conclusion: Resettlement solutions for vulnerable communities

Narratives from both communities frame the following policy recommendations for stakeholders in future resettlement debates.

Resettlement is a reasonable strategy for achieving the government’s zero-casualty goal, however, future debates merit more thorough consideration of the balance between displacement and risk reduction. Offsite resettlement proves a costly option for the government, its partners, and beneficiaries themselves. Such projects inevitably encounter barriers of capacity and scalability, even with substantial support from organizations like Gawad Kalinga. More effective cost/benefit analysis in considering of on-site or near-site upgrading might minimize future displacement. When offsite resettlement is deemed the best option, careful planning and post-resettlement involvement of local government stakeholders are critical to providing access to employment, social services, health, and education. Under local government leadership, NGOs prove key partners in offsite resettlement and community building.

Determining appropriate housing options requires an understanding of the complex dynamics driving housing choice among settler families. Variations in past experience, socioeconomic status, and other priorities proved key factors in determining housing preferences for residents of both communities. The massive displacement and casualties Gabaldon experienced following the 2005 typhoons left residents faced with a choice between proximity to work and secure housing. The majority expressed a strong preference for permanent, stable homes, safe from threat of disaster. Yet many informal settlements lack the resources to pursue a solution similar to the GK-Kalyaan resettlement – and some beneficiaries found displacement and transportation costs to be larger obstacles than expected. Some ultimately chose to abandon the sweat equity option to pursue employment and access to services in the city, consistent with preferences expressed by most residents of Sitio Kislap who have chosen to remain in their homes despite frequent flooding and fires.

Their experiences build a strong argument for evidence-based resettlement programs, which take such variables into account when determining appropriate interventions for communities at risk. For some settlers, many Kislap residents included, risk reduction programs including structural mitigation and disaster response trainings, are preferable to offsite relocation. This argument aligns with the current NGO advocacy campaign to amend the Philippines’ Urban Development and Housing Law to prioritize community development and on-site resettlement. In the case of off-site relocation for Sitio Kislap, many residents spoke of pursuing alternative arrangements in informal urban settlements on higher ground, closer to jobs. Efficient, effective policy solutions must account for their preferences.

Government, NGO, and private sectors partners may minimize displacement by expanding rent-to-own and perpetual or time-bounded lease arrangements, making on-site or near-site upgrading more affordable. Finally, informal settler families’ housing choices are inherently bounded by availability of options. In both GK-Kalayaan and Sitio Kislap, residents who found the economic burden of resettlement too heavy to bear often returned to cities to be closer to jobs, taking up residence in other informal settlements. In such cases offsite resettlement creates secondary marginalization, frequently resulting in more harm than good. To mitigate this, public-private partnerships focused on housing options may consider expanding rent-to-own or lease-based options. Innovation in housing design and construction, and use of stronger, more affordable materials, would support this effort.

Resettlement of vulnerable communities raises complex issues without uniform policy solutions. Conclusions drawn from narratives in GK-Kalayaan and Sitio Kislap are inherently context-dependent, and should be taken as guidelines for evidence-based resettlement. From these accounts, policymakers may extract lessons to build community resilience to future disasters, with increased confidence that interventions will do more good than harm.

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