[OPINION] The true impact of Typhoon Ompong on the Philippines

As Luzon braces for the impact of Typhoon Ompong (international name Mangkhut), the entire Philippines and the world are about to find out just how prepared we are for disasters.

Have we learned from the avoidable mistakes made in past disasters? Are we prepared to effectively handle any emergencies that might happen in the coming days? Can the government coordinate well with other sectors in responding to all possible situations? (READ: What gov't has done so far to prepare for Typhoon Ompong

It has been nearly 9 years since the onslaught of Typhoon Ondoy in Metro Manila, yet memories of extreme flooding and strong winds remain vivid among those affected by the disaster. The unprecedented devastation it brought to the nation’s capital  and surrounding provinces led to climate change becoming fully integrated into national and local policymaking. Laws such as the Climate Change Act of 2009 and the Philippine Disaster Risk Reduction and Management (DRRM) Act of 2010 were institutionalized to ensure better management of and response to disasters

Have we learned our lessons? 

Yet the following years saw different parts of the Philippines suffer losses and damage to one extreme event after another. Super typhoons, El Niño-enhanced droughts, and monsoon rains left communities struggling to fully recover from their impacts. Some rehabilitation efforts, most notably those affected by Yolanda in Eastern Visayas, remain uneven or unfinished to this day. 

Truth be told, improvements have been made in our preparedness for natural hazards. New equipment for PAGASA has allowed improvements in weather forecasting and modeling climate change. Early warning systems and communicating climate and disaster-related information to the public have also seen progress in the past decade. Some regional DRRM Councils have even initiated projects to reduce disaster risks in their areas and increase the resilience of their constituencies. 

Nonetheless, glaring problems in the national and local DRRM remain evident. A lack of sufficient manpower and financial and technical resources hinder the implementation of programs throughout the DRRM framework. Awareness in dealing with disasters remain low in some regions, partially worsened by corruption and bureaucratic inefficiency. Some government agencies even refuse to provide necessary data for planning against disasters to other agencies or civil society organizations.  (READ: EXPLAINER: Who's supposed to be in charge during disasters?)

The most significant of these problems is the focus of governance on responding to disasters instead of prevention and mitigation. Despite improvements in its capacity and its importance in preventing disasters, the science and technology sector remains underfunded and underappreciated. Poor land use planning and ineffective building codes repeatedly expose the most vulnerable sectors, including the urban poor and the marginalized, to the worst of such impacts. (READ: Expert: PH tech, understanding of disasters 'on par with world's best'

While more avenues for climate change adaptation-based support have opened in recent years, local government units are either unaware of the availability of these options or unsure of how to access these much-needed resources. Specifically, LGUs are not familiar with engaging with academic institutions in coming up proposals to get support. (READ: Disaster imagination: 3 steps toward disaster preparedness) 

Political will, effective leadership 

These are the issues that House Bill 8165, which seeks to create the Department of Disaster Resilience, attempts to address. The resulting super-agency will lead the national coordination of efforts for reducing the risks, preparing for the impacts of hazards, and rehabilitating should disasters occur. The bill also attempts to streamline disaster risk reduction management and climate change adaptation planning to enhance implementation efficiency.  (READ: Duterte sends Cabinet members to Luzon provinces in Ompong's path)

The need for enhancing our DRRM framework is undisputable, given the endorsement of President Duterte, the recent history of damages inflicted by tropical cyclones, and projected worsening climate change impacts. Modifying the systems in place cannot be done overnight but the urgency of the problem requires immediate action.

The Climate Reality Project Philippines asserts that ultimately, what the Philippines truly needs in improving its DRRM is political will and effective leadership. Government officials from national agencies to local units must recognize that climate change is the biggest threat to the immediate and long-term survival of their constituencies. They must also lead the way in changing our mindset in dealing with disasters, from anticipating disasters to mitigating their causes and preventing them from causing too much destruction.

Therefore, the government must enforce existing policies and implement programs to empower communities to prepare for, if not avoid, the impacts of extreme natural hazards.

As they are at the forefront of these impacts, LGUs must explore all available options to build the capacity in their respective areas to respond to possible disasters. Proper land use planning would provide not only DRRM-related benefits such as reducing vulnerability to immediate hazards, but also long-term economic and environmental benefits that can never be matched by short-term pursuit of financial gains.  

There must be adequate manpower and funding for all aspects of DRRM, but efforts on disaster prevention and mitigation must be prioritized. In this regard, the government should engage and coordinate with the private sector, civil society organizations, the academe, and local communities to minimize, if not avoid altogether, loss and damage to extreme events. (READ: Thousands flee in Isabela, Cagayan ahead of Typhoon Ompong landfall) 

In this regard, some regions have shown a glimpse of how far we have come when it comes to DRRM. Communities in Bicol and Cagayan Valley, which will be affected by Ompong, have demonstrated innovations and good practices in local DRRM from prevention to rehabilitation that serve as models for other localities.  

Yet as a nation, we still have a very long way to go. Sooner than later, we should all realize that resilience is no longer enough. Prevention is and always will be better than cure. The following days may be the most pivotal in determining the direction of Philippine policy on climate change and DRRM for years to come.

Is there really a need to change the system if the solution is a change in the people in it? – Rappler.com 

John Leo Algo is the Science Policy Associate of the Philippine Branch of The Climate Reality Project. Founded by Nobel laureate and former US Vice President Al Gore, CRP is a diverse group of passionate individuals who have come together to help solve the greatest challenge of our time. We are cultural leaders, marketers, organizers, scientists, storytellers and more, and we are committed to building a better future together.