Wanted: Messiah for disasters

Aries C. Rufo
The stand-alone agency should be responsible for formulating 'one coherent plan' on disaster management

 PRAYERS. Survivors of Super Typhoon Haiyan march during a religious procession in Tolosa on the eastern Philippine island of Leyte on November 18, 2013 over one week after Super Typhoon Haiyan devastated the area. File photo by Philippe Lopez /AFP

Conclusion (READ: Part 1 NDRRMC: Too many cooks spoil the broth)

MANILA, Philippines – While others fault the government for its slow and unimpressive relief and rescue response in the wake of Super Typhoon Yolanda, some international disaster experts choose to be more conciliatory.

United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) coordinator for crisis prevention and recovery Jahal Rabesahala de Meritens praised it as “impressive,” given the massive scale of devastation.

The UNDP official observed that government had pre-positioned resources for immediate response but “preparedness has a limit.” De Maritens also said, “It is not humanly possible not to have any delays.” He pointed out that in Japan for instance, “People are told to stockpile food and other necessities enough to tide them over for 3 days, in case government encounters delays in responding.”

The challenge is to cut short the delays and fast track the delivery of basic services in affected areas and institute recovery programs as soon as possible. Still, the level of response “depends on available resources,” he pointed out.

Need for a separate, strong agency?

In the aftermath of the devastation caused by Yolanda, some have argued that the creation of a separate department or agency whose sole purpose is to focus on disaster management is now justified.

Yolanda’s running death toll has breached the 5,600 mark, with damage to properties and infrastructure estimated at more than P24 billion. The super typhoon has raised the benchmark for disaster preparedness.

Former defense chief Avelino Cruz said it might be high time to review the disaster management structure and appoint someone “on a full-time basis.” This new body should have the capacity and capability to procure permanent equipment for disaster preparedness and response.

If this cannot be done at the soonest possible time, Cruz said the Office of Civil Defense (OCD) should be allocated a bigger budget “to build up its own response system. What the OCD had is just a token budget.”

In the scheme of things, the OCD is just an appendix in the Department of National Defense (DND) hierarchy. Serving as secretariat of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC), it has one of the leanest staffing in the DND and its budget allocation is among the smallest, as if it were an afterthought.

In fact, before RA 10121 or the Disaster Risk Reduction and Management (DRRM) Act of 2010 was enacted, its yearly budget was only around P90 million, just enough to pay for Maintenance and Other Operating Expenses (MOOE), including salaries.


Budget of OCD on a yearly basis
2008 P83.950 million
2009 P89.488 million
2010 P85.528 million
2011 P90.890 million
2012 P1.221 billion (including P530 million for Quick Response Fund or QRF)
2013 P657.278 million (including P530 million QRF)


It was only in 2012 that the OCD budget rose to more than P1 billion. The increase in the budget was just enough to cover the hiring of additional plantilla positions for the regional offices, according to long-time staff of the OCD. (In the past, the regional disaster coordinating councils or RDCCs sourced funding from the 2% reserve funds of LGUs for disaster preparedness, which include the organization of the local DCCs).

Equipment for disaster response

Since it relies on its mother unit, the DND, for its logistical requirements, the OCD’s annual budget excludes capital outlay. “We have no money for capital outlay. We could not buy our own equipment, say for disaster response,” former NDRRMC executive director and OCD Undersecretary Benito Ramos said.

In his abbreviated tenure with the NDRRMC, the only equipment that the OCD was able to secure from the DND was 26 units of rigid hull inflatable boats in 2011 at a cost of P19.5 million. Most of the inflatable boats went to the Ilocos region.

An OCD staff said that they prepare and submit an annual procurement plan for the agency but much of it is disapproved. “We just rely on what they give us,” the staff said.

While technically the LGUs could augment the OCD’s equipment requirements for disaster preparedness and response, their hands are also tied with limited resources.

Under RA 10121, they are required to allocate at least 5% of their Internal Revenue Allotment. Of this amount, two-thirds can be used for disaster preparedness, with the remaining one-third for their Quick Response Fund for relief and recovery purposes.

Lorna Victoria, a director of the Center for Disaster Preparedness (CDP), said such provision should have also been applied to the Calamity Fund under the yearly national budget to finance the procurement of equipment for disaster management. Right now, the Calamity Fund can only be used during and after natural calamities – not before. 


Calamity Fund allocation in the national budget
YearBudget (In billion pesos)
2008 P2 billion
2009 P2 billion
2010 P2 billion
2011 P5 billion
2012 P7.5 billion 
2013 P7.5 billion 


CDP president Adelina Alvarez said the use of the national government’s calamity fund for pre-disaster preparedness is one possible amendment that could be incorporated when RA 10121 undergoes review in 2015.

Under the law, a congressional oversight committee is supposed to conduct a “sunset review” of RA 10121 five years after it was passed “for purposes of remedial legislation.”

Catching up with the rest of the world

One of the last laws enacted under the Arroyo administration, RA 10121 actually sought to harmonize disaster management in the country with the rest of the world.

Approved in May 2010, it supplanted the 32-year-old PD 1566 that created the National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC) and replaced it with what came to be known as the NDRRMC. What was different with the new NDRRMC was it tapped local government units (LGUs), community and civil society for a more responsive approach to disaster management.

The new law shifted more responsibilities to LGUs on disaster management, guided by a local DRRM plan that gives more emphasis on disaster prevention and vulnerability assessment than disaster response.

As with the defunct NDCC, at the national level, the DND, through the OCD, remained on top on the NDRRMC, with 4 other Cabinet secretaries as vice-chairmen.

The 3-year-old law had its major tests when Tropical storm Sendong (Washi) and Typhoon Pablo (Bopha) hit in 2011 and 2012, respectively.

Sendong lashed Northern Mindanao, the Visayas region and Palawan, killing more than 1,200. Typhoon Pablo, which battered Mindanao and Palawan, claimed more than 900 lives. In these two natural calamities, government got its fair share of criticism for its supposed lack of preparation to minimize deaths. 

But Category 5 Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), considered one of the most powerful typhoons to make landfall, according to the US-based Weather Underground, reduced Sendong and Pablo’s combined experience to a mere training drill.

Yolanda has pushed the country’s disaster management officials to go back to the drawing board, raising questions about the continuing relevance and responsiveness of RA 10121 and the NDRRMC.

Who’s on top

When the new law was still being crafted, a debate over which government department should head the NDRRMC ensued. Three suggestions emerged:  1) the Department of the Interior and Local Government should head it; 2) it should be put under the Office of the President; 3) the DND should be put in charge.

CDP’s Victoria said civil society organizations (CSOs) lobbied for the NDRRMC being placed under the Office of the President “since it is the President that ultimately makes decisions.” CDP is one of the CSOs that helped fine-tune RA 10121.

Another group argued that since the main thrust of the measure was to mitigate vulnerability to disasters – a function of the LGUs – the overall implementing agency should be the DILG.

But in the end, it was retained under the DND because it has the logistics and resources to mobilize equipment needed to respond to natural disasters.

Albay Governor Joey Salceda, who has become known for making his province the most disaster-prepared LGU in the country, said that when his opinion was sought, he batted for the DND retaining the NDRRMC chairmanship. “Only the DND has the flexibility in terms of logistics and resources,” he pointed out.

But this is exactly where part of the problem lies.

Constraints, liabilities

Keeping the DND in charge runs counter to the intent of RA 10121, since the military is trained primarily for response and relief operations, an OCD official pointed out.

In the DRRM Act, it is the NDRRMC that oversees the national framework and plan for disaster management, with the OCD as the implementing arm. This NDRRM plan is cascaded to the OCD regional offices and the local DRRM councils at the provincial, city, municipality and barangay levels. The local DRRM councils are under the control of the governor, mayor, and the barangay captain.

“Either the DILG or the DSWD should have been the lead agency. If the LGUs are the front-liners, then the DILG secretary should have been the chairman of the NDRRMC,” the OCD official said.

CSOs, in pushing for a separate authority on disaster management, said the NDRRMC’s inherent limitation is that it cannot have a budget bigger than its mother unit, the DND.

They cited the case of Indonesia, which has suffered the biggest disaster to date when a huge earthquake shook west of Sumatra Island in December 2004, triggering a tsunami that killed more than 165,000 in Indonesia. The tsunami, which devastated coastal areas in 11 countries, killed 225,000 people worldwide.

Archipelagic and highly prone to natural catastrophes like the Philippines, Indonesia established the National Disaster Management Agency whose head is given a Cabinet or ministerial rank. The head is supported by a steering committee composed of government officials and the private sector, and an executive body.

Among others, the agency is tasked to formulate policies on national disaster management, making sure that these are implemented through proper monitoring. The agency has its own funds, from both the national and the regional governments.

Messiah for disasters

Former defense chief Gilbert Teodoro, under whose term RA 10121 was crafted, also sees the need for a “stand-alone agency” whose primary task is to focus on disaster management. He said Yolanda is a “precedent-setting” catastrophe that renders the present model irrelevant.

One inherent liability in the present set-up is that the logistical needs of the OCD are at the lowest rung in the scale of priorities. For example, the Armed Forces’ acquisition programs are always tied to the modernization program which are primarily aimed at external defense.

(This excludes procurement problems being encountered by the DND and the limited logistical capacity of the military to respond to natural disasters).

The stand-alone agency should be responsible for formulating “one coherent plan” on disaster management, addressing all levels of disaster preparedness, emergency and rehabilitation. It should also make sure that laws are aligned with the national disaster framework and plan.

The agency should also be headed by someone “with a strong institutional personality to lead” and able to influence other government officials to carry out the national disaster plan.

That person, he said, could be “a politician with managerial expertise – an astute politician and diplomat and good manager. You need a messiah who knows he will be crucified yet takes on the job, willing to be crucified.”

Given the almost impossible but thankless task, will there be any takers? Teodoro is optimistic. “There are persons running for public office even if they know they will be crucified. You can find such a person,” he said. – with Rey Santos Jr and Michael Bueza/Rappler.com

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