[OPINION] Urgently needed: Department for disaster resilience and climate change

We have been calling for the new department for 5 years now, even before the 2013 Yolanda disaster. It would be fitting that we finally get this done on the fifth anniversary of that terrible event.

Kristoffer Berse and Tony La Viña

2:0:0am September 9, 2018

10:15:13am September 8, 2018

(Part 1: 5 years after Yolanda, imperatives for addressing disasters)

After supposedly going through 6 technical working group meetings and 11 regional consultations involving more than 1,000 local government units, the proposed Salceda bill consolidated 34 bills and 4 resolutions filed within the House of Representatives since last year. The department is initially patterned after the US Department of Homeland Security which put under one roof at least 22 agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The proposed agency is touted to be even ahead of FEMA in as far as instituting resiliency as a core mandate is concerned.

There are a number of good, radical changes in the proposed Department of Disaster Resilience (DDR). First and foremost, the integration of agencies involved in disaster risk reduction and climate change under one roof is the right way to go. The transfer and harmonization of the powers and functions of agencies and offices such as the Office of Civil Defense (OCD) of the Department of National Defense (DND), Climate Change Office of the Climate Change Commission (CCC), the Mines and Geosciences Bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), the Health Emergency Management Bureau of the Department of Health (DOH), the Disaster Response Assistance and Management Bureau of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), and the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) of the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) are logical and necessary from an organizational perspective.

The move to bring Phivolcs and PAGASA from the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) to the new department also signals a closer integration of science and technology in all aspects of disaster risk reduction, not just in early warning and hazard assessment. This will also mean the end of extraordinary mechanisms that we have to resort to in every reconstruction phase through the creation of ad hoc task forces.   

The conscious mainstreaming of the BFP in disaster work is a good idea as it provides the needed surge capacity at the local level. For so long, the fire sector has been on the sidelines of disaster response in the country as we tend to rely more on the police and armed forces for support in times of disasters. In other countries like Taiwan and the US, fire personnel – not the security forces – are the go-to first responders during emergencies and disasters. On its own, the BFP is already expanding its wings and has big plans to further bolster its own capability in handling more than just fire-related emergencies. Nevertheless, while it would be sensible for the BFP to remain with the DILG as it implements its own reforms, moving it as a core unit of DDR could fast-track and ensure harmonization of its upgrading efforts with those of other agencies envisioned to be part of the disaster agency. 

Another laudable feature in the proposed bill is the centralized administration of the Quick Response Funds currently allocated to multiple national government agencies. The increase in share of pre-disaster funding from national and local funds for DRRM, now to be called the National or Local Disaster Resilience Fund, is responsive to the paradigm shift that we have been advocating for so long. The increase from 5% to 7% of the Local Disaster Resilience Fund, as well as the creation of a Disaster Resilience Support Fund for 3rd to 6th class LGUs, should help localities address disasters more holistically.

The current bill, of course, is not perfect in its current form. We suggest that Congress do not start from scratch and begin with the findings and recommendations of the nationwide consultations with various groups involved in NDRRMC operations that took place in 2015-2016. That effort, led by NDRRMC Executive Director and Defense Undersecretary Alexander Pama, was done to prepare for the formal "sunset review" of Republic Act No. 10121.

In establishing a new department, Congress needs to be extra careful to avoid creating a bloated and highly-bureaucratic agency. Measures need to be in place to ensure that only qualified staff will be carried over to the new department and that the organization's structure is streamlined for efficient and effective operations. The national government can take this opportunity to review and resolve long-standing staffing issues in the different agencies that are proposed to be unified under the DDR. 

It goes without saying that Congress must be strategic in deciding which existing agencies should be integrated into the new department. For example, we must thoroughly discuss the pros and cons of transferring PAGASA and the MGB to the new department. We do not want the unintended consequence of having the mandate of these agencies, which goes beyond disaster resilience, affected by such a move. Are there other options short of removing them respectively from the DOST and the DENR? Top officials and rank and file from the affected agencies must certainly be consulted so all bases are covered. This move is particularly important for the country's weather agency which has been actively beefing up its capacity since the passage of the PAGASA Modernization Act (RA 10692) in 2015.

The merger of the NDRRMC and CCC, as the highest policymaking and advisory body for disaster risk reduction and management and climate change, respectively, is necessary. These institutions have been managed separately, undertaking activities that should have been integrated from the beginning. The consolidation of NDRRMC and CCC as one executive body is timely especially since climate change, as the President has recently acknowledged, is fast becoming a "day-to-day problem" that affects us all in different ways. Now is the perfect time to make this institutional convergence happen officially to ensure dedicated focus, unity of vision, and coordinated action in addressing both major disasters and slow-onset climate change impacts (e.g., increasing temperature). 

Similar to PAGASA and the MGB, the officials and personnel of the CCC should be consulted, among others, to also identify mandates that might be affected by this change. Mitigation regulatory responsibilities should now be completely returned mainly to the DENR but with the energy, transportation, and agriculture departments playing important roles. The negotiation mandate of the CCC should now be returned to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) working with all agencies but with the secretary of the new department as the minister in charge for purposes of official meetings.

One good outcome of this proposal is to have one clear line of accountability, with one cabinet secretary that will now be in charge of both disasters and climate change. It was not effective to have the President, who is very busy, to chair the NDRRMC and CCC. He still of course will have control over the new department as head of the executive branch.

On the financial side, the Peoples' Survival Fund should be included in discussion on funding resilience. By finally integrating disaster risk reduction planning and climate change adaptation, new sources of funding could be identified for resilience projects. This includes the Green Climate Fund where money is available for both mitigation and adaptation.

At any rate, the good news is that the budget requirement for the creation of the department, which has hampered efforts in the past, has already been cleared with the committee on appropriations in the House. We hope that it gets to pass the legislative mill soon so we could finally face the threat of disasters and climate change as a united front. Until then, we could just keep on hoping that future disasters will not be strong enough to overwhelm the capacity of our LGUs. 

We have been calling for the new department for 5 years now, even before the 2013 Yolanda disaster. It would be fitting that we finally get this done on the fifth anniversary of that terrible event. – Rappler.com 

Kristoffer Berse is a full-time faculty member 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.

Tony La Viña is former dean of the Ateneo School of Government. He previously served as an undersecretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and also worked at the World Resources Institute in Washington, DC. He has published numerous local and international studies on climate change and the environment.