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Why Was Vietnam Better Prepared Than the Philippines for Typhoon Haiyan?

by Joshua Kurlantzick
November 18, 2013

A man sits at his damaged shop in the aftermath of typhoon Haiyan in Vietnam's northern Quang Ninh province, 180 km (112 miles) from Hanoi on November 11, 2013. (Nguyen Huy Kham/Courtesy Reuters) A man sits at his damaged shop in the aftermath of typhoon Haiyan in Vietnam's northern Quang Ninh province, 180 km (112 miles) from Hanoi on November 11, 2013. (Nguyen Huy Kham/Courtesy Reuters)

Over the past week, as aid trickled and now is flowing into the Philippines in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, some broader questions about the country’s preparedness—or lack thereof—have arisen. Although it would be unfair to compare the Philippines, a country with a GDP per capita of around $2,600, with richer countries hit by natural disasters (such as Thailand in the 2004 tsunami), it is worth asking why the Philippines seemed much less prepared for Haiyan than neighboring Vietnam, a country with a GDP per capita of only $1,600. Although the typhoon also passed through Vietnam, albeit after slowing down somewhat over the water in between, Vietnam suffered fourteen deaths, as compared to what appears to be thousands of fatalities in the Philippines.

Vietnam managed to evacuate over 800,000 people well before the storm hit; the total number of people who evacuated in the Philippines prior to the storm remains unknown, but a sizable percentage of people on Leyte did not evacuate, a factor that surely increased fatalities.

What differed in the two countries’ preparations?  To be sure, Vietnam is an authoritarian state where the central government retains far more power than in the Philippines, one of the most vibrant democracies in Asia. But well before the typhoon hit, Vietnam’s government already had labeled it the most serious possible emergency, making it easier for provincial officials to convince people to leave their homes. Philippines President Benigno Aquino III did not label the typhoon the most serious possible emergency, a categorization that would have allowed him to mobilize more resources and possibly force the evacuation of more people prior to landfall. In addition, those who were evacuated in the Philippines were moved only a few hours before the storm made landfall, leaving authorities little time to look for isolated or elderly people who might not have heard warnings or been able to follow them.

Vietnam’s buildings also simply seem to have been stronger; structures designated as storm shelters generally did not collapse, while those in the Philippines frequently did. This difference in the quality of building is a testament to the continuing serious problem of graft in the Philippines, where corruption siphons off funds for infrastructure and leads to shoddy work. Although parts of Leyte are regularly hit by typhoons that carry the risk of surges of water, the area had few significant water breaks; many buildings and roads were built with substandard materials, probably because contractors had to pay kickbacks.

Vietnam is hardly a model of clean government—the country was ranked among the most corrupt countries in East Asia last year by Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index—but the Philippines is in many respects worse, particularly in areas of the country long under the control of family dynasties. Indeed, because Vietnam’s graft is more centralized, the government sometimes is able to overcome corruption within the Party, whereas in the freer Philippines a more decentralized kind of corruption is much harder to combat from Manila.

Finally, Vietnam appears to have more clearly studied government responses to past major disasters in Asia, including the 2004 tsunami and the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. This might seem somewhat surprising, given that Vietnam’s leaders are in many respects suspicious of interactions with other countries and highly opaque in how they run their government. Yet below the senior leadership, Vietnam boasts a relatively (for the size of its economy) qualified group of civil servants and diplomats, particularly in areas that are not politically sensitive, like disaster management. Although the Philippines does have some fine civil servants, particularly in prestigious jobs like the foreign ministry, the overall quality of the civil service is poor, in part because Filipinos with top-quality educations, which includes fluency in English, have more opportunities in the domestic private sector and overseas than educated Vietnamese.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by XXX

    One nation is 7,000 disconnected islands, the other is not. Shouldn’t all analysis start there?

  • Posted by Giang Le

    According to The Economist (Worse than hell, Nov 16), the Philippines evacuated about 1 million people. Given the geography of the archipelago and the 2 day shorter notice, the Philippine evacuation effort was no less impressive as of the Vietnamese. The aftermath response was a different story, but there was no comparable situation in Vietnam to assess which government was more effective in its relief effort.

    Both The Economist’s article and this one wrongly attributed the lesser damage in Vietnam to the preparation effort by the government. It might be true that Vietnam was better prepared to head off the typhoon, but the lower dead toll and lesser destruction were mostly due to the fact that the typhoon changed its course and didn’t hit straight to central provinces, the poorest region of the country.

    Had the typhoon kept its original course, the disaster could have been much worse in Vietnam than what happened in the Philippines. The reason is that more than a dozen of hydrodams in the central region would have to release water downstream at the worse time when a large number of the poor population were hiding in underground trenches. The flooding during the typhoon hightime would have kill a lot more people.

    In the last 10 years the government failed to rein in the number of hydrodam constructions, the central provinces despite warnings and protests from experts and environmental groups alike. Then it failed to restrict water accumulation prior to the storm season and impose a coordinated water release protocol. And then it failed to require compensation from dam owners to the poor victims. In fact, more often than not, it dismisses any link from the hydrodam water release to downstream flooding despite ample evidences.

    Those facts greatly contradict your speculation that the centralized and authoritarian government in Vietnam is more capable to overcome corruption and the country has a relative qualified group of civil servants and diplomats. Please wake up!

  • Posted by Hieu Nguyen

    “Indeed, because Vietnam’s graft is more centralized, the government sometimes is able to overcome corruption within the Party, whereas in the freer Philippines a more decentralized kind of corruption is much harder to combat from Manila”

    - I don’t think it’s true. Corruption within a party even is harder to controlled because group interest is too big to fail.

    Besides, one fact that I want to mention is that by dint of witnessing the destruction of Philippines, Vietnamese government and citizen were motivated to be well-prepared.

  • Posted by Bert O. Romero

    Vietnam enjoys certain advantages over the Philippines which may help explain its lower human casualties: For one, Haiyan made six landfalls in the Philippines; it’s first landfall hit Tacloban, Leyte at a staggering 325 mph! By the time Haiyan made landfall in Vietnam it’s center winds had dissipated to 170 mph. Secondly, the most organized state institution that can immediately be harnessed to address national emergencies – the military – is better organized, led, equipped, experienced and motivated in Vietnam than in the Philippines, a consistent member of the list of Foreign Policy’s FAILED STATES these past five years. Thirdly, the Philippines’ liberal democratic form of government had spawned a more fractious and uncoordinated response: Witness the spectacle of the Philippine president criticizing and insulting local government officials for their alleged incompetence before the glare of national media and just immediately after Haiyan left the country’ s area of responsibility! Lastly, and despite its being tragic, will national government officials led by its president and defense secretary who under the law are primarily and directly responsible in times of national emergencies continue to flaunt that it’s more fun in the Philippines?

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