After Sendong, 10 things we must do

Dean Tony La Viña
This is certainly not the time for blame games. Accountability must be exacted.
Tony La Viña

It has been difficult finding the words to talk about Sendong and the death and devastation it caused in Cagayan de Oro, Iligan and other places in Northern Mindanao. This time around, climate change and natural disasters – two fields which I have studied and worked on for more than 20 years – are not only academic topics but they have become very personal.

After all, I am a native of Cagayan de Oro City.  I was born and raised there. Even after having worked and lived in many countries, the City of Golden Friendship is home and will always be to me the most beautiful city in the world with the most wonderful people as well. I am also very familiar with Iligan and know many people there. And so since disaster struck these twin cities of Northern Mindanao last weekend, I have been at a loss for words.

I have family friends who died and I know intimately the places where the flash floods destroyed whole communities. People should know that not only the poor were hit by Sendong, but that, in fact, many middle-class families were also affected. Next to the deaths of so many, especially children, it has been heartbreaking to hear the stories of young families losing everything and having to start all over again.

But now, as the first week after the disaster ends, it is time to think of the future – the immediate, the medium- and the long-term. And so even as I continue to grieve and feel helpless, let me now put on my climate change hat and share what I think are the 10 things we must do after Sendong.

In the short-term, in the next 6-9 months, these should be the priorities:

1. We should help affected families and communities, poor or rich or middle class, find closure and stand up on their feet. I stress the importance especially of helping the middle class who were affected, whose needs are unique and less obvious, but nevertheless as important in this disaster. Government presence is key to assure them they have not been abandoned. Continuing relief operations as long as possible are important for that purpose. The infrastructure that was destroyed, such as the water system in Cagayan de Oro, must be repaired quickly. Psychosocial assistance should be provided. The dead, the suffering, and the grieving must be respected and treated with dignity.

2. Avoid distractions and blame games, but exact accountability. We should not be distracted by such issues as the so-called partying of President Aquino (a non-issue really, given the information available on Saturday and Sunday) or typographical errors of his scheduled visits. Although this is certainly not the time for blame games, accountability must be exacted. In other countries, notably in Japan, officials take themselves out of the equation by resigning and taking responsibility. Unfortunately, we do not have that tradition here. And so I welcome the task forces created by the President to investigate what happened, although I would have preferred an independent commission to do this job to have more objective findings. Nevertheless when they finish, I hope they will file the appropriate criminal, civil and administrative cases against accountable officials. I would especially want charged those officials who abetted the activities that exacerbated the disaster, or those which had the information and the power to prevent it (but negligently did not do so).

3. We must quickly put into place disaster preparedness measures – better forecasting, more effective warning systems (based on expected rainfall, for example), improved inter-LGU or local government unit cooperation (Bukidnon could have warned Cagayan de Oro about what was coming), disaster risk mapping, evacuation plans, and necessary physical infrastructure and interventions to reduce risk.

4. We must understand and address the root causes of why Sendong caused so much death and destruction. There is of course the reality of climate change; this should make us realize that the rainfall we saw in Northern Mindanao last week was not a singular event but could be part of a new pattern. Accepting this as a permanent reality, we must now confront some hard facts: the settlement patterns in Cagayan de Oro (and maybe Iligan) are not sustainable; deforestation and land degradation must be reversed, which means putting a stop to all logging and mining in all surrounding areas (including ARMM) and making agriculture more sustainable; and a massive reforestation and revegetation effort must be immediately launched. Of immediate priority — even now in the immediate aftermath of Sendong — is that people should not be allowed to go back to unsafe places and instead should be relocated to safer areas.

In the medium-term, i.e., the next two years, we must do the following:

5. The most commonsensical approach to responding to climate change is to design and implement adaptation Programs. This is not rocket-science. In fact, the Climate Change Commission headed by President Aquino and run by a Mindanawan Vice-Chair Lucille Sering recently adopted the National Climate Change Action Plan that, at its core, is an adaptation program. Adaptation requires us to know where we are vulnerable and what is needed to lessen the risks to us.

6. A major component of climate change adaptation is to put into place a risk reduction approach to natural disasters. Our new law on disaster risk reduction and management actually does that but it fails to do one thing many experts have said is necessary – the creation of a full time, independent disaster agency. The military and the defense establishment should rightly lead disaster response, rescue and relief, but they are not equipped to lead the work in reducing risks. A civilian and expert-led body, headed by a Cabinet-level official reporting directly to the President, is necessary for this. Congress must amend the Disaster Risk Reduction and Management (DRRM) law to make this happen.

7. Cagayan de Oro, Iligan and other vulnerable cities and provinces must once and for all develop, adopt and implement sustainable land use policies, including strict rules on no-build areas and environmental easements, based on the carrying capacity of nature and an understanding of the threats brought by climate change. The local governments must resist attempts to change those land use plans to benefit interested persons or groups.

8. We must build the capacity to live in harmony with nature, including the enforcement of environmental laws. Destructive and extractive activities, such as logging and mining (legal or illegal, small-sale or large-scale) and unsustainable agriculture, should be prohibited. Only those economic activities whose environmental risks can be predicted and mitigated should be allowed.

Finally, in the long-term (next 10 years and beyond):

9. We must address, as a society and a member of the global community, the problem of climate change. Unless we reduce the greenhouse gas emissions we are all loading to the atmosphere, climate change will always run ahead of us, and our vulnerability will only increase. While the Philippines is currently not a major contributor to climate change, we must do our part as well and stop building coal and other fossil fuel plants that make us lose the moral authority to call on other countries to reduce their emissions.

10. We must rebuild our cities and communities and make them better than what they were before disaster struck. The people of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan are the most resilient and generous people I know. They will overcome the tragedy of Sendong. The point is not to repeat it.

It is ironic that the morning after Sendong struck my hometown, I was flying home to Manila after nearly three weeks in Africa, where I was a member of the Philippine delegation to the annual United Nations-sponsored climate change negotiations. Although the Philippines tried hard being an influential player in the negotiations to help the world address climate change, we achieved only little progress. Because of this, climate change will only get worse in the future and that is why we must be prepared for the worst. –