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Typhoon Haiyan: Natural storm, man-made disaster?

Typhoon Haiyan was one of the strongest tropical cyclones ever to make landfall. But how much of the tragedy was caused by nature, and how much was caused by human actions? The Star asked experts for their opinion.


  1. Typhoon Haiyan was one of the strongest tropical cyclones ever to make landfall. But how much of the tragedy was caused by nature, and how much was caused by human actions? The Star asked experts for their opinion.
  2. "In fact, disasters are not 'natural' at all. Weather events and and other humanitarian crises do occur, but human preparedness, policies, and politics shaping disaster response are all key variables affecting just how 'disastrous' a disaster will be. I write in my book how Cyclone Nargis in Burma/Myanmar was a policy disaster that allowed thousands to die because the government of Myanmar would not accept outside help in the first week of the cyclone that hit in 2008 along the densely populated Irrawaddy Delta. Some 130,000 people died. Compared to the Philippines, where Typhoon Haiyan wreaked terrible damage, response times have been much better and therefore survival rates are also much higher, with less death."

    - Jennifer Hyndman, author of Dual Disasters: Humanitarian Aid after the 2004 Tsunami and professor at York University

  3. "Increasing sea temperatures have indisputably intensified the typhoons that cross the Philippines every year. But the global drivers of climate change – disproportionately located in places like Canada – are geographically displaced from the effects they unleash. We need to recognize the social causes and spatial connections behind Haiyan - as a tearful Filipino diplomat did, to a standing ovation, at UN climate change talks in Warsaw on Monday.

     Impacts are also rooted in social processes. The most effective forms of protection for coastal areas are the buffers provided by mangrove forests. In many parts of the Philippines, these coastal forests have been replaced with commercial fishponds – developments driven by, and benefitting, an elite few. Coastal reforestation may be one of the most effective forms of storm protection."

    - Philip Kelly, professor of geography and director of the York Centre for Asian Research, York University

  4. Typhoon Haiyan: Philippines commissioner breaks down at UN talks
  5. "A storm of this intensity would be devastating wherever it hit. Nobody can expect to be fully prepared all the time, and it is impossible to have building codes in third world communities that would come close to standing firm in the face of sustained winds of 235 km/hr.  That said, the population of the area does tend to be resilient, given experience with typhoons and earthquakes. And while the Red Cross had pre-positioned food, water and hygiene supplies in some areas, cancelled flights and destroyed roads made access more difficult.  In retrospect, we all recognize those efforts were inadequate and that preparatory activities could have been more aggressive. However, if this was to be done in the future, we would have to be prepared for criticism if the impact was not as severe as anticipated and some of these activities were perceived to be false alarms.

    - Brian Schwartz, Chief of Emergency Preparedness, Public Health Ontario

  6. "When news of Typhoon Haiyan reached our shores, the Canadian government and the Canadian people opened their wallets and their hearts. Disaster relief, however, is a band-aid, not a cure. If we want to adapt to a climate with higher storm surges, more intense rainfall and stronger winds, we need to proactive, not reactive. We need to provide the resources to build the knowledge, institutions and infrastructure to help make countries like the Philippines more resilient to future storms. That project requires consistent, long-term technical, political and financial support.

    At the UN climate talks two years ago, the developed countries promised to mobilize $100 billion/year by 2020 to help the developing world respond to climate change. Right now, we are nowhere near that target. The devastation of Typhoon Haiyan should serve as an example to the negotiators at this year’s climate talks in Warsaw of that consistent, long-term support for adaptation in the developing world is so necessary."

    - Simon Donner, Department of Geography, University of British Columbia
  7. "Given the scale of the event, it is difficult to say how much of it could be avoided. Obviously, with stronger and more resiliant constructions, less damage would have occurred. However, the 2011 disaster in Fukushima is proof that even developed and well-prepared nations such as Japan are vulnerable to such catastrophic events. Anyhow, it may well be that the scale of the typhoon could have been to some extent due to our changing climate, which is a manmade phenomenon."

    - Caetano Dorea, civil and water engineering professor at the Université Laval 
  8. "It is too easy and overly crude to blame the government of the Philippines for the shortfalls in the response to the recent typhoon as a result of failure on their part to adequately prepare.  While it is true that all governments could always do more to prepare for disasters, emergency preparedness requires a balance between the expenditure of scarce funds for an event that someday might happen and the associated opportunity costs of doing so, versus using those funds to provide services in the here-and-now to the population. While even governments in resource-rich developed countries face this same dilemma, the choice is even more difficult for middle-income countries such as the Philippines, where 26% of its population lives below the poverty line (according to the World Bank). ...

     In the soon-to-be-published Consensus Statement on Care of the Critically Ill and Injured During Disasters and Pandemics, we recommend the best way for developing countries to prepare for disasters and balance the demands to provide care for their population is to enhance current health care networks, such as those for HIV treatment, but include planning, training and preparation to enable this infrastructure to respond in the event of a disaster or pandemic.  This approach builds both basic capacity as well as providing a system to respond in a disaster."

    - Mike Christian, Dalla Lana School of Public Health, U of T


  9. "International disaster assistance also needs to change from focusing on response to disaster mitigation and preparedness. Most of what the financial and material that international community contributes to the disaster response inevitably goes to the provision of basic needs of impacted population such as water, food, and health. If a small portion of this aid is spent on a regular basis on hazard mitigation and emergency preparedness measures and capacity buildings in developing countries, like the Philippines, more lives and properties can be saved. Today’s hazards should not be disasters of tomorrow."

    Ali Asgary, professor, disaster and emergency management program, York University

  10. "What strikes me most about the current situation is the apparent heavy reliance on military and external intervention as opposed to more community self-reliance. Given the repetitive nature of disaster occurrences in the Philippines, it’s recognized that the current situation is so severe that even the best attempts to prepare for such an event may have been somewhat futile, but greater community capacity building could help to lesson future impacts."

    - Peter Anderson, emergency communication and disaster mitigation expert at Simon Fraser University's School of Communication
  11. "On the one hand, a major disaster like this knocks out so much infrastructure (transport, electricity, clean water, communications, to name just a few) that it would be difficult for any local or regional government to adequately prepare. Even if the national government had huge stocks of medical supplies, generators, and trained rescuers and health workers ready to go, there would still be enormous challenges getting those things to where they are needed as airports, roads and ports were severely compromised. Affected areas in the Philippines are probably going to be without large scale outside help for at least another week or two.
    On the other hand, due to climate change we can almost certainly expect more and bigger storms in general, so increased preparations ought to be worthwhile. However disaster planning may not offer a big, immediate payback so governments - in particular in poorer nations -  may allocate scarce resources to other pressing needs. Furthermore, to help communities cope until outside help arrives requires picking the right mix of effort including (just as examples) toughening of public building codes, local stockpiling of resources and, most importantly, training of large numbers of people in first aid, how to make shelters, etc. As you can imagine, this is a huge and lengthy undertaking for any country, and particularly for poor ones. But preparation of people - and by that I mean all citizens - is the key to successful disaster response."

    - Paul Arnold, emergency physician and instructor at U of T with a special interest in disaster preparedness

  12. "Filipinos are familiar with the devastation caused by typhoons, with multiple big storms hitting the Philippines archipelago every year. The government authorities had a high disaster response capacity and early warning systems and emergency response plans were ready in the event of a big storm. However, the magnitude and intensity of Typhoon Haiyan was beyond what that envisaged and emergency relief efforts failed to come to fruition in the wake of the disaster. Given the enormous geographical and physical challenges posed by the archipelago that is the Philippines, emergency response systems, even if highly developed, will not be failsafe.  The magnitude of devastation incurred and the slow relief response was in part due to the country’s poverty and the lack of resources available to support disaster-resilient permanent infrastructure and emergency response plans. Long-term disaster risk reduction planning and more extreme disaster resilient infrastructure is needed to prevent such a disaster occurring again.  The urgency for this is all the more imperative with more frequent and intense storms predicted due to climate change."


    Clare Robinson, professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, The University of Western Ontario

  13. "The peak winds in Haiyan were very severe when it made landfall, in the range of an EF-3 tornado...Our work suggests that we can build houses which could withstand tornadoes up to about an EF-2 level, that is, wind gusts up to about 200 or 220 km/h. What it takes is paying attention to small details we normally don’t think about. This is because the wind wants to lift the roof up, so we need to hold it down. More often we think about holding the roof up so that it doesn’t fall on us. In the wind everything is kind of upside-down. But if we use 'hurricane clips' to hold the roof trusses down, and longer nails, with a few more of them on every sheet of plywood on the roof, we can make the entire house stronger and able to withstand such forces. A sheet of plywood fastened using a 2.5 inch long spiral nail, spaced every 6 inches on the trusses, is about 3 times as strong as one with 2 inch common nails, spaced every foot. This tiny difference increases the wind speed causing failure by about 75 per cent. We are talking about a few hundred dollars more per house, but compared to the destruction we see, I think it would be well worth it."

     - Gregory A. Kopp, Professor, Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, University of Western Ontario