(March 2006) On February 17, a devastating landslide killed an estimated 1,800 Filipinos in Guinsaugon on the southern part of Leyte Island in eastern Philippines. The horrific images of loss of human life and property that emerged from this tragedy remind us of recent devastations from hurricanes, tsunamis, and earthquakes in New Orleans, the Caribbean, and Asia.

But is the Guinsaugon landslide just another disaster striking a poor village in the developing world? Or has Hurricane Katrina finally taught us that such “natural” disasters are often cautionary tales—about our failure to address the mix of long-term environmental, economic, social, and political circumstances that accentuate our vulnerability to these events?

A Surge in Natural Disasters Over the Past Generation

A recent World Bank analysis reported that over one-half of the world’s population is now vulnerable to one or more major natural hazards.1 And in the Philippines alone—an archipelago historically subject to earthquakes, floods, droughts, cyclones, windstorms, tidal waves, and landslides—the risk to human life from natural disasters has increased dramatically over the past generation. From 1971 to 2000, natural disasters there killed 34,000 people; but from 1990 to 2000, natural disasters killed or disrupted the lives of 35 million people.2

The island of Leyte has also experienced a number of recent deaths from disasters. In 1991, flash floods provoked mudslides in Ormoc City on the western side of the island, killing about 6,000 people. A 2003 landslide in San Francisco in Southern Leyte killed 133. Seven road workers died in a landslide in Sogod town five days before nearby Guinsaugon’s tragedy.3 As in other regions of the world, factors such as rapid population growth, increasing population densities, and environmental degradation are accelerating vulnerability to disasters in the area—especially as settlements encroach into disaster-prone lands.

The tragedy in Guinsaugon seems the latest example of the importance of examining how these factors combine to increase vulnerability. While days of heavy rains loosened the soil there, the reduced forest cover and fractured and weak underlying bedrock could not sustain the heavy load the rains produced. In addition, population growth in Southern Leyte is rapid, population density is high, and roughly one-quarter of the families are poor—placing significant additional stress on the environment and putting more people at risk for disaster (see table for forest cover and population figures).

Population and Forest Trends in the Philippines

Geographic area
Population density per square km (2000)
Annual population growth rate (2000)
Percentage of poor families (2000)
82.5 million
7% original lowland forest remains
Southern Leyte
49% current forest cover

Source: Population Reference Bureau, Making the Link in the Philippines: Population, Health, and the Environment (2006).

Disaster Mitigation Versus Disaster Elimination

While there are similarities between the landslide and the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, Southern Leyte is no New Orleans in terms of the chronic neglect of warnings about inevitable disaster in that city. In New Orleans, technological fixes in the form of levees as well as a lack of political will led us to develop the city beyond its capacity to absorb the human demands placed on the environment. Ultimately, when disaster struck, we were unprepared.

The Philippines’ government, on the other hand, has been working to address the population-environment nexus in Southern Leyte by developing community-driven disaster reduction strategies there. Land has been replanted to prevent soil erosion and reduce landslides; water flow in irrigation canals has been regulated to alleviate flooding.4

Local official and eyewitnesses report that the affected area was well forested. But even though Leyte has more forest cover than the rest of the Philippines, it is clearly not enough to reduce vulnerability to disasters. In fact, in 2003, government geologists listed more than 80 percent of Leyte as prone to geological hazards like landslides.5

The lesson here is that disaster mitigation is not disaster elimination. Even though measures such as those taken in Southern Leyte generally help reduce loss of life and property when disaster strikes, vulnerabilities persist. While rapacious land clearing had diminished, reforestation efforts were not enough to shore up the effects of years of logging.

Clearly, dealing with one aspect of the current pressures—land denudation—is important, but not enough. More than just banning logging or campaigning for reforestation, the Philippine government needed to examine how to better identify hazardous areas and how to create incentives and livelihood opportunities elsewhere for the poor and endangered communities living there.

Addressing specific disaster threats only when they occur also often fails to address other pressures that increase vulnerability to disasters—such as a lack of livelihood opportunities that drive the poor to settle in hazard-prone areas where they can cut trees and sell wood, thus reducing forests and other natural buffers. The Philippine government’s Mines and Geosciences Bureau implemented a geohazard mapping project that identified the general area as vulnerable, but it wasn’t detailed enough to indicate which specific towns were in danger.6 People could have been relocated, but many poor villagers in the area fear losing their livelihoods and didn’t have anywhere else to go.

Finally, attitudes about disasters pose a significant challenge. Disaster preparedness can create a false sense of control, at times raising expectations without increasing local capacity to address root causes of vulnerability. Politics invariably enters into the picture as bigger, politically contentious issues that drive vulnerability are not addressed—such as the costs of relocating people to more safe areas.

The Road Ahead

Given these challenges and limitations, what can we do to mitigate human vulnerability to natural disasters? We need to start with three concrete actions:

  • Research and link concrete interventions in disaster mitigation to underlying vulnerabilities, including the health burden of populations at risk. Disasters cause tremendous health burdens, either directly on populations or indirectly on the capacity of health services to address primary health care needs. Disaster-risk analysis should be part of routine epidemiological analysis and systematic control and prevention, rather than merely treated as an emergency medicine or humanitarian matter.
  • Understand and analyze the underlying trends that affect vulnerability. Addressing vulnerability includes examining historical and emerging data, trends, and development options that affect the ability of natural and man-made systems to absorb recurrent disaster. PRB has recently worked with conservationists in the Philippines to compile data across population, health, poverty, and environment sectors to provide the basis for such assessments. Examining these data, understanding their interactions, and designing strategies that take into account these relationships is a first step to examining disasters in the context of their interrelated causes, vulnerabilities, and impacts.
  • Promote dialogue, community empowerment, and political will to increase adaptive capacity to respond to disasters through purposeful action. Policymakers might invest in long-term plans that reduce or mitigate threats; generate a timely warning system to reduce potential costs when a disaster strikes; and plan short-term relief responses while working at longer-term rehabilitation. But these efforts will have a greater impact when implemented across sectors and at national, regional, and local scales.

In March 2006, PRB is facilitating a national dialogue in the Philippines among policymakers, program managers, community leaders, development specialists, and donors about the programs that have implemented such approaches. This forum will be the perfect opportunity for cross-sectoral dialogue on the different dimensions that affect vulnerability in the Philippines. Themes of the conference include poverty, livelihoods, security, conservation, population, health, and sustainable development.

Position Disaster Planning Within Sustainable Development Planning

Recurrent disasters—in both developing and developed countries—frequently destroy poor-quality housing; cause outbreaks of disease; and create shortages of food, medicine, and energy supplies, driving up prices of these commodities. As the Guinsaugon story highlights, the poor face limited choices in terms of where to live and how to earn a living. They may put themselves in harm’s way—and when disaster strikes, they are faced with a spiral of increasing vulnerability involving human and property damage as well as arrested economic development.

In order to reduce vulnerabilities, disaster mitigation and preparedness must be positioned within wider development planning that is based on a better understanding of the linkages between ecosystems and human activities. The lessons of Katrina and Guinsaugon are here today, waiting for us to apply them.

Roger-Mark De Souza is technical director for population, health, and environment at the Population Reference Bureau.


  1. The World Bank, Natural Disaster Hotspots: A Global Risk Analysis (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2005).
  2. Population Reference Bureau, Making the Link in the Philippines: Population, Health, and the Environment (Washington DC: Population Reference Bureau, March 2006).
  3. Jim Gomez and Michael Casey, “Experts Foresaw Tragedy in Philippines,” Associated Press, Feb. 24, 2006, accessed online at www.ecoearth.info, on Feb. 25, 2006.
  4. International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, “Building Community Resilience to Disaster in the Philippines,” in World Disasters 2005 (chapter 5), accessed online at www.ifrc.org, on Jan. 21, 2006.
  5. Gomez and Casey, “Experts Foresaw Tragedy in Philippines.”
  6. Gomez and Casey, “Experts Foresaw Tragedy in Philippines.”