Filipino typhoon survivors join ‘david and goliath’ climate fight

A decade on, survivors of Haiyan in the Philippines are fighting to make big polluters pay for losses caused by climate disasters.

The 2013 typhoon exposed major shortcomings in the Philippines' disaster preparations, according to a 2019 report by the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, and the country has sought to boost its readiness for future climate crises. Image: International Labour Organization ILO, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

Joanna Sustento lost her home and most of her family when Typhoon Haiyan smashed into the Filipino city of Tacloban on Nov. 8, 2013, an experience that drove her to join the fight to make fossil fuel firms pay up for worsening climate disasters.

One of the most destructive storms in modern history, Haiyan killed more than 6,000 people and displaced millions, with the total bill for losses and damage estimated at 571 billion pesos (US$10.18 billion) by the Philippine government.

Typhoons were part of growing up in Tacloban for Sustento, but nothing from past experience could prepare the city’s roughly 200,000 residents for Haiyan, known locally as Yolanda.

“We didn’t know Typhoon Yolanda was going to be a different kind of monster,” Sustento, 32, told Context as she recalled how the floodwaters engulfed her family’s bungalow within minutes.

She lost her parents, eldest brother, sister-in-law and nephew in the disaster.

Today, Sustento works at Greenpeace Philippines to document other people’s losses from extreme weather events including Yolanda, part of the environmental group’s efforts to build a pioneering community-led legal case against fossil fuel companies.

Adaptation is no longer possible for some communities and countries. The excuse always is, ‘I’m not going to give you money if you’re not going to be able to manage it properly’. But then it begs the question: Why are we in this situation in the first place?

Yeb Sano, executive director, Greenpeace Southeast Asia

At the same time, the group is calling for Congress to approve new legislation called the Climate Accountability Bill, which would impose fines on big emitters of planet-heating carbon and use the proceeds to pay climate-linked damage claims.

Such efforts reflect a growing global push to secure recompense for communities on the frontlines of global warming - whether through the courts or a new UN “loss and damage” fund being set up for that purpose.

‘Someone must pay’

In Yolanda’s aftermath, Arthur Golong, 48, was among tens of thousands of people relocated from an informal settlement in central Tacloban to villages north of the city.

He has managed to build a new life, opening a hairdressing business, but a lack of jobs has forced many others to leave.

In 2019, Golong and other survivors of the storm filed a petition before the country’s national human rights commission, accusing 47 fossil fuel companies of infringing on people’s rights as a result of their actions triggering climate change.

“Someone must pay for it,” he said, as he waited for customers at his village home.

“Fossil fuel companies may have contributions to society, but they also have major contributions to environmental harms,” he added.

In a landmark decision, the commission said fossil fuel companies were responsible for climate-induced rights harms, though it did not have the jurisdiction to order compensation and the case has not been taken up by the courts.

Yeb Sano, a former top climate negotiator for the Philippine government who now leads Greenpeace Southeast Asia, said the commission’s inquiry had inspired community-led climate litigation in the Philippines, and beyond.

“It has provided us sound legal basis to go to regular courts as the new battleground,” he said.

Tangible losses

When Yolanda struck, it took weeks for aid to arrive in Salcedo, a small farming town in Eastern Samar province, which was devastated by the storm and also wants to join the Greenpeace-led legal push.

As a fifth-class municipality - a label for the poorest towns in the Philippines - Salcedo’s more than 20,000 residents who depended on fishing and farming struggled to recover from Yolanda, said Salcedo councillor Joselito Esquierdo.

“Our community grappled with tangible losses from our farmlands to the sea,” Esquierdo said.

Hundreds of residents still live in temporary, makeshift houses, and the town’s fishermen and farmers did not receive appropriate aid to rebuild their lives, said Oliver Layugan, a resident who became an environmental advocate after the storm.

The 2013 typhoon exposed major shortcomings in the Philippines’ disaster preparations, according to a 2019 report by the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, and the country has sought to boost its readiness for future climate crises.

The government’s Climate Change Commission did not respond to a request for comment.

Adaption vs compensation

But despite criticism over how the government and aid agencies responded, Sano said disasters like Yolanda had shown that, in certain cases, no amount of adaptation or preparedness can ward off the worst effects of a heating climate.

“Adaptation is no longer possible for some communities and countries,” he said, adding that the debate must now shift to compensation by those responsible for causing climate change - whether oil and gas firms or rich industrialised nations.

Governments are grappling with how to set up a new fund to tackle loss and damage driven by global warming, but wealthy countries have firmly rejected demands for compensation for the consequences of their high share of the emissions that are turbo-charging floods, droughts and storms around the world.

“The excuse always is, ‘I’m not going to give you money if you’re not going to be able to manage it properly’. But then it begs the question: Why are we in this situation in the first place?” said Sano.

An eventual decision to test the fossil-fuel lawsuit in the courts could energise small communities hard-hit by disasters like Yolanda, said the former climate negotiator who forced “loss and damage” onto the UN’s diplomatic radar a decade ago.

“Whether we win or lose in court, it would generate a lot of energy for the movement,” he said.

“Many communities and sectors would get truly inspired by the courage of people who wage this David and Goliath fight.”

This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit

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