[OPINION] 5 years after Yolanda, imperatives for addressing disasters

Right now, our efforts have been marred by bureaucratic squabbling and largely isolated activities

Kristoffer Berse and Tony La Viña

9:30:0am September 8, 2018

10:22:14am September 8, 2018

Five years ago, Super Typhoon Yolanda (International name: Haiyan) devastated the Visayas, killing thousands and causing massive destruction. We were unprepared for that disaster. One would think we have learned from that.

Think again. Are we better off today, more prepared to address the challenges disasters bring? Have we reduced disaster risks? Have we improve our institutions?

Lately, nature has tested yet again our capacity to handle disasters. A typhoon-boosted habagat  inundated much of Metro Manila, drawing horrific comparisons with Typhoon Ondoy (International name: Ketsana) which devastated the city 9 years ago. But were our fears warranted? 

Ondoy’s fatal blow came in the form of 600 millimeters of water pouring over the metropolis within 6 hours. That’s about the normal volume of rain that the national capital can carry in a month. This time around, while scientists are still calculating the exact figures, we could hazard a guesstimate that the deluge did not exceed or even reach Ondoy level. Hazard-wise, at least.

However, while the Karding-enhanced habagat was not as relentless as Typhoon Ondoy, we teetered on the brink of another disaster reminiscent of the 2012 Habagat. In Marikina, for example, forced evacuation was imposed in low-lying barangays as water level in Marikina River swelled and peaked at 20.6 meters by Saturday evening, August 11, higher than the 20.45 meters recorded in 2012. We may recall that next to Ondoy, the 2012 Habagat – also enhanced by a storm (International Name: Haikui) that did not even enter the so-called Philippine Area of Responsibility (PAR) – is considered to be the second worst flooding to hit Metro Manila, if not the country, in recent years. 

Improving local government capacity

Six years ago, incessant rain over a 3-day period left 109 people dead, 14 injured, and 4 missing. Across 6 regions, 4.2 million people were affected, 212,632 of whom were sheltered in 656 evacuation centers. Fifty-nine cities and municipalities were flooded, rendering 16 roads and 3 bridges impassable to vehicles in 4 regions, including NCR. All in all, economic damage was pegged at P3 billion.

As of 18 August, reports from the NDRRMC indicate that the impact of the recent southwest monsoon is much smaller for the national capital. Within NCR, only 4 evacuation centers have been activated to accommodate 57 families from Malabon, Marikina and Navotas. Only 3 deaths have been reported in the metropolis, although damage to infrastructure and agriculture remains high at almost P1 billion, albeit affecting mostly Regions I, II, and CAR. 

It is true that no disasters are the same, but the improvement in numbers could also be attributed to the better response of local governments, especially in Metro Manila. A well-established early warning system ensured timely evacuation, while the operation centers of most cities were in full gear as torrential rains pounded the metropolis intermittently. But what created significant buzz among netizens is in how cities like Marikina, Makati, and Quezon City – certainly our “star cities” when it comes to disaster management – have raised the bar in camp and evacuation management. Marikina and Makati put up modular tents, a foldable technology adopted from the Japanese, while Quezon City showcased its own fire-proof and solar-powered pop-up huts. These examples should serve as the gold standard for other cities to up their ante in the provision of temporary shelters.

Call for nature-based solutions

Beyond disaster response, our story in the past few weeks, however, tells more of the same: we live in a city that sinks under the weight of rain. Part of it is geography, but another part, us. We have paved our cities to the extent of severely limiting natural absorption of surface water runoff. And it does not help that logging and quarrying activities in critical upland ecosystems remain unabated in spite of the President’s pronouncements to the contrary. 

Within the disaster management community, there is a growing movement to shift towards nature-based solutions to manage flooding and other disasters. Sadly however, we tend to look the other way as urban parks and other green spaces in the city and surrounding areas continue to shrink in the name of “development.” Multi-billion mega-flood control projects can only do so much; we need to harness nature so it can take back what it gives.  

There are a plethora of other reasons to explain our flood-prone way of life. One could find it in the sea of trash washed ashorealong Roxas Boulevard. Or in submerged gated communities which sit on natural floodplains. Or in densely populated settlements along creeks and river ways that are perpetually a moment’s away from rampaging floodwaters. Or in the absence of a dedicated focal unit looking into all of these things. 

Scaling up of good local practices

Given the immensity of our disaster woes, we cannot rest on the laurels of a few local government units (LGUs). We need a national agency that could dedicate its full resources in ensuring that the good practice of some LGUs become standard practice throughout the country. This is important because to most LGUs, the paradigm shift from disaster response to development-oriented disaster risk reduction is a fairly new concept, if not an additional burden.

Scaling up of good practices cannot be done more effectively and efficiently in the current setup wherein the Office of Civil Defense, the secretariat of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC), could not even directly receive funds for capital outlay to finance the creation of DRRM training institutes nationwide, as mandated by law. It does not help that the OCD, as an attached agency, has to compete with the bureaucratic priorities of its host agency, the Department of National Defense (DND). 

This is not say that we have not improved our capacity in handling disasters or that we have been lacking in effort to do so. The OCD, DILG and many other government agencies, as well as the private sector and civil society, have been very active in conducting training programs on various aspects of disaster risk management in recent years. However, all of our local successes will be for naught if there is no authoritative and accountable agency that could effectively harmonize these efforts for a coherent whole-of-society and whole-of-government endeavor. Right now, our efforts have been marred by bureaucratic squabbling and largely isolated activities, with LGUs on the receiving end of competing, if not conflicting, information and instructions from various national agencies. 

Need to fast track creation of resiliency and climate change department

The exhortation of President Duterte in his latest SONA to create a standalone executive department is not only timely, but necessary. Certainly, such clamor is not new. When the current law, the Philippine Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act of 2010 (RA 10121), was conceptualized and discussed by various stakeholders in as early as 2006, the idea of having an executive agency was already put forward. This became paramount in the aftermath of Typhoons Ondoy and Pepeng in 2009. In the end, however, the practicality of maintaining a council setup while at the same time expanding its functions prevailed.

As expected, the revamped National Disaster Coordinating Council, now renamed NDRRMC, had to struggle with its bigger mandate but practically unchanged authority and resources. As we have said before, it proved to be old wine in a new wineskin. 

On the response front, the piecemeal reform did not address the need for a more effective command and control, coordination, and communication among different agencies. While it rightly passed on the main responsibility to handle disasters to LGUs based on the principle of subsidiarity in governance – that decisions and actions, as a rule, must be made at the level most proximate to the problem or situation at hand – it failed to provide a robust and redundant mechanism at the national level. The NDRRMC chairperson has no effective control over other member agencies to ensure that we will not lose the so-called golden hour in times of disasters. This limitation reared its ugly head when Yolanda hit us hard in 2013.

It is true that our record in saving lives has improved drastically since then. A big reason for this was the increase in our technological and technical capacity to anticipate, communicate,and respond to an incoming storm. But not all disasters can be predicted (e.g. 7.2 magnitude earthquake risk in Metro Manila) and losing one life is still one life too many. 

We must not also forget that we continue to incur significant damage and losses on the economic side. In 2015, the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) has estimated that on average we lose˜ about P230 billion annually from storms and floods alone, accounting for approximately 40 percent of our social expenditures. As reported in EMDAT-CRED, our total economic damage from typhoons were recorded to be highest in recent years, namely, 2009, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015.

The creation of a Department of Disaster Resilience, as championed by Albay Representative Joey Salceda, is one right step towards further strengthening our disaster risk management capability. We suggest that we go further and create a Department of Disaster Resilence and Climate Change, with the Climate Change Commission and its powers and functions absorbed into the new department. This process, however, must be pursued in consultation with the top officials and rank and file personnel of CCC and other agencies which will be affected by the much-needed reform. (To be continued)Rappler.com

Tony La Viña is former dean of the Ateneo School of Government.

Dr Kristoffer Berse is a full-time faculty at the University of the Philippines’ National College of Public Administration and Governance, where he teaches public policy, local government, research methods, and, occasionally, disaster governance. He has been involved in disaster and climate change work in and outside the Philippines in the past 15 years.