Ondoy 4 years after: Managing the unavoidable

Lucille L. Sering
It's been 4 years ago since Ondoy, the year of reckoning in our country in terms of dealing with extreme weather events caused by climate change

The year 2009 was the year of reckoning in our country in terms of dealing with extreme weather events brought about by climate change. It was on Sept 26, 2009 when Ondoy, internationally known as Tropical Storm Ketsana, brought a month’s equivalent of rain in just 6 hours. Those 6 hours of rainfall overwhelmed flood control facilities and brought unimaginable chaos in Metro Manila.  

The damage was estimated to be close to US$4 billion  or equivalent to 2.7% of our GDP based on a World Bank study[1], making it the costliest disaster thus far.  This brought the level of discussion on climate change to the steps of Congress and on that same year, the Climate Change Act was passed and signed into law in December 2009.

Despite this, people still asked:  Why did this happen? How can these happen? And will this happen again?

Almost a week after Ondoy, a category 4 typhoon called Pepeng, internationally known as TS Parma, approached the country. Even before we could make sense of what just happened, the country was bracing for another big one. And although Pepeng changed course and spared Metro Manila, it nonetheless damaged Northern Luzon.  

Costliest typhoons

The cost of the two typhoons in 2009 alone surpassed the cost of typhoons for the previous 20 years before 2009. Since then and almost a year after, extreme weather has caused damaged never been seen before in the country. 

The costliest and most destructive typhoons all occurred in the last 5 years: Frank (2008), Ondoy and Pepeng (2009), Juan (2010), Pedring (2011) and Pablo (2012).

Pablo is listed as one of the costliest and destructive typhoons and is considered the  number 9 deadliest. Typhoon Sendong that hit the cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan was not included in the top ten costliest and destructive lists, but it was considered one of the deadliest typhoons that hit the country, landing in the top 8.

The deadliest typhoon that hit the country was Typhoon Uring in 1991, killing close to 5,000 people with 3,000 more missing in Ormoc City, Leyte and Negros Occidental.[2]

Extreme weather events

Based on the 2011 Global Assessment Report of the United Nations Office of Disaster Reduction or UNISDR, while the trend in the number of people killed during disasters in Asia continues to decrease, the economic losses are however increasing.

This observation is further validated in a World Bank review of the climate expenditure by the Philippines, which notes that the portion of national budget spent on disasters increased by almost 26% annually from 2008 to 2012. This is higher than the 6% annual increase of the entire budget. 

The increase is attributed mostly to recovery and rehabilitation, with flood control programs getting almost 90% of the share of costs. And yet, flooding continues. 

Climate change is now being cited as the reason for these extreme weather events, but not all Philippine experts categorically admit it to be so. They prefer to call it climate variability. There are still skeptics in the scientific community, but climate change or not, they can no longer deny that weather is getting really extreme. And almost all mainstream scientists in the world now admit that global temperature is indeed on the rise. 

This has led some to conclude that an extreme weather event is the new normal. 

Managing ourselves

We know now that the rise in sea level, increase in global temperature, and increase in the intensity of typhoons or extreme weather events are effects of climate change. But this is not the real danger.

The real danger is when we start using climate change as an excuse for inaction, that it is so overwhelming we cannot do anything about it. An example is the fish kill in Lake Taal in 2011 that caused millions of pesos in damage. Authorities were quick to blame climate change. After an independent investigation, it was learned that overstocking caused the fish kill and not climate change. It was ultimately attributed to greed.

Managing the unavoidable therefore should start from managing ourselves.

Based on several international studies, the Philippines is considered one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change due to the number of hazards, the number of people exposed to risks, and weak infrastructure to address climate change impact. 

Dissecting the reasons why the Philippines is vulnerable, one will see that these substantially involve human factors. Increasing rural to urban migration due to lack of opportunities has increased the number of people exposed to risks in urban areas.  

Physical infrastructure is not built based on increasing vulnerabilities. Most plans of government, especially local plans, are not risk based. Most, if not all local government development planning offices are separate from their disaster risk management offices.  Hence, most disaster risk plans are focused on rescue and recovery. 

Development planning has yet to icnlude the full impact of extreme events on the economy. It’s almost nil on the impact of the increase in temperature on food security.

Future scenarios

As the cost of damage continues to increase, it is paramount that strategies to address disasters should no longer be based on historical events but must also consider future scenarios. Mainstreaming climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction is key to improving resiliency.

Risk-based planning must be fused together with recovery and rehabilitation. Planning for climate change should not only be about saving lives, although it is primordial, but also about reducing costs to the economy. Every money spent on disasters is money taken away from education and health.   

Typhoons will continue to come. Flooding brought about by torrential rains will continue to happen. Accepting these to be true and translating these to programs not only of government but also with the participation of the private sector, are crucial steps toward resiliency. With a cohesive response by all sectors, managing the unavoidable is therefore possible. – Rappler.com

[1] Getting a grip on Climate Change in the Philippines: Climate Public Expenditure and Institutional Review. The World Bank. 2013
[2] PAGASA data

– Rappler.com 
Secretary Lucille L. Sering is the Vice Chairperson of the Philippine Climate Change Commission. She recently spoke at the 2013 Manila Social Good Summit held on September 21 at the Asian Institute of Management in Makati City. 

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