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September 26 marks the 13th year since the Philippines was hit by Ondoy. Four years before the onslaught of Yolanda, this was the storm that first introduced climate change as a threat to the minds of millions of Filipinos. Images of cars flipped over, and celebrities stuck on roofs waiting to be rescued, exemplified the shock that spread throughout the country.
Since this time, the importance of climate action and disaster risk reduction has grown in local and national governance, business operations, and community initiatives. Yet as we are painfully reminded of every time, words are different from action.
Has the Philippines improved its disaster risk reduction management since Ondoy?
Pros and cons
Government data shows that deaths and injuries due to weather disturbances have decreased nationwide since 2013, the year when Yolanda killed more than 6,300 people and injured more than 28,000 others. No storm since then has come close to reaching this death tally, with the most being that of storm Vinta that caused 165 fatalities in 2014.
It can be claimed that this is a good indicator that our nation has learned its lessons from past mistakes. In some ways, this has been the case.
There have been significant improvements in weather forecasting and early warning systems, as evidenced by the stark differences between how PAGASA reports weather updates more than a decade ago and how they do so now. Local government units (LGUs) have also improved their evacuation strategies in times of emergencies, with residents being more cooperative during such processes.
Disaster risk reduction has also been named as a priority in national governance, as seen during the most recent State of the Nation Address. A strong commitment from current and future administrations is key to not only implement effective disaster-related solutions, but also shape public opinion for mobilizing resources and strengthening cooperation to avoid or reduce vulnerabilities and risks.
However, other data indicate that relying on this interpretation alone is misleading when determining overall progress in this field. For instance, there is an average of 167 deaths per year due to storms from 2014 to 2020.
The concept of zero casualty is integral to any effective disaster risk reduction management. Any loss of life only means that there were failures in the local disaster management strategies that need to be addressed immediately.
What is not given as much attention to when highlighting their impacts in narratives are the millions of Filipinos affected by these typhoons (and thousands injured) that lead to economic and social loss and damage, which in some cases are irreversible.
Billions of pesos lost in infrastructure and agricultural assets are not easily recovered, either. For all of the claims of the government lacking resources for one reason or another, failure to manage risks diverts key resources that could have been used to push our nation to sustainable development.
The 10 most destructive storms in Philippine history in terms of damage to property have all occurred after Ondoy. Aside from Yolanda, which left P95.5 billion in loss and damage, these occurred as early as Pepeng in 2009 (P27.3 billion) and as recent as Odette last year (P51.8 billion).
For a nation that has always been on the path of an average of 20 storms every year, the fact that the loss and damage from typhoons seem to keep increasing suggests two possibilities. Either climate change impacts are intensifying to the point that current resources and capacities are simply not enough, or there is a lack of sufficient focus and political will to address gaps in governance and program implementation.
The truth is a combination of both of these statements, yet the impact is what matters more.
Closing the gaps
Any harm done to individuals due to climate-related disasters may now be viewed as human rights violations to which LGUs, national government agencies, and corporations causing climate change can be held legally liable. This is reinforced by the United Nations’ recent declaration of the universal right to a healthy environment, and the findings of the Commission on Human Rights’ inquiry on fossil fuel corporations.
The Philippine government must also shift away from its emphasis on response and rehabilitation and instead prioritize the stages of disaster prevention and preparedness, as is recommended by scientists. The successful work of civil society groups in blocking the creation of a Department of Disaster Resilience, which would have centralized powers related to disaster management and focused too much on response, is a vital step forward in this potential shift.
While we recognize that there has been progress in these stages, there is still more work to be done to increase disaster resilience in the country. Among these is enhancing the capacity of poorer LGUs to implement disaster risk reduction plans, monitor the progress of enforcement, improve data collection from said activities, and recognize how dangerous the climate crisis can truly be.
Another step forward involves improving the utilization of Local Disaster Risk Reduction Management Funds and giving LGUs more awareness and access to other sources of financing. Among these is the People’s Survival Fund, intended to enhance the ability of communities to adapt to climate change impacts like more intense typhoons that can cause catastrophes.
The onslaught of Ondoy first opened our eyes to the reality of the climate crisis. While the Philippines has made progress in resolving some of the issues on disaster risk reduction, we still have a long way to go to become the right kind of resilient.
Being resilient does not mean simply reacting to and smiling through every disaster; it means initiating actions to avoid or minimize risks. It is long overdue for us to learn from our mistakes. – Rappler.com
John Leo Algo is the Deputy Executive Director for Programs and Campaigns of Living Laudato Si’ Philippines and a member of the interim Secretariat of Aksyon Klima Pilipinas. He is a climate and environment journalist since 2016.