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The new normal for disasters

Facing the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council or any potential successor agency is a crisis, an enemy, which has grown in intensity, reach, and impact, at an almost frightening pace over the past twenty years. As Sun Tze advises, knowing one’s enemy and knowing one’s self is the key to mastering conflict, and the same remains true in the conflict between disaster and survival. Philippine government and society’s painful struggle to keep pace with calamity and recovery needs isn’t just a result of a lack of capabilities in the NDRRMC, or national and local government, but a consequence of the natural vulnerability of the Philippines.

It is a common refrain I have emphasized in every discussion about climate change or disaster management: our country is calamity-vulnerable. We are ripe for disaster (though, I always add, not helpless before it). This condition ought to give urgency not just to further reform of the NDRRMC, but even a change from below, for society to begin disaster-proofing itself, instead of living in complacency.

The consequences of global warming and climate change have amplified the strength and frequency of typhoons. The Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical, Astronomic Services Administration reports that, based on one projected climate model of the Philippines, the dry seasons will get hotter and drier, and hot days would become more common in the wet season; rainfall would increase in Luzon and Visayas, and decrease in Mindanao—but that rainfall will increasingly come in the form of torrential downpours and typhoons.

Mindanao being hit with Sendong and Pablo in consecutive Decembers reflects this dramatic change in Philippine climate, as does the 2012 Habagat’s heavy rainfall, with its unprecedented ability to flood Metro Manila as though it were a typhoon. Both flood and drought would hit the Philippine agricultural economy as hard as a meteor strike—government reports agricultural product and infrastructure losses to Pablo at a staggering P29 billions. And it is agriculture that supports the income of some of the poorest members of Philippine society. The poverty

implications are painful to contemplate.

All this is just in the climate front (though we expect it to be the most frequent source of Philippine disasters). Geology and geography exacerbate the effects of calamity, climactic or other. Another tragic consequence of torrential rainfall are landslides, due to mountainous terrain—especially when compounded with massive deforestation. Outside of the interaction with climate, our geographic positioning also leaves our country vulnerable to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Here we should also mention that climate can also amplify geological calamities: a typhoon simultaneous and co-located with the 1991 Pinatubo eruption magnified the impact of the volcano’s ash fall and pyroclastic flow (lahar). Finally, in the arena of response and recovery, our country’s archipelagic construction does hamper rapid delivery of relief goods and services to far-flung sites, especially when heavy winds shut down airways and waterways.

Finally, human activity introduces its own vulnerabilities and magnification to natural calamity (as well as being its own source of disaster). As noted in the discussion on landslides, destructive land use from uncontrolled logging and surface mining has led to the denudation of forest cover, reducing the land’s ability to soak up rainfall and mitigate flash floods and landslides. Equally destructive is the distressing habit of allowing property development (formal or informal) along flood-vulnerable banks and shores, only to be washed away or inundated by swelling rivers and storm surges. This should be familiar to survivors of Sendong in Cagayan de Oro, or residents along the Manila Bay shoreline and the banks of the Pasig River.

This combination of geology, geography, climate change, and human activity has played into the regular heavy death tolls and damages caused by storms and typhoons. One more factor in the state of Philippine disasters remains to be accounted: lack of capability and complacency. Poverty and a resource-strapped government naturally increase vulnerability: lack of social security and insurance, poor infrastructure and shortage of supplies to support disaster response and recovery, and so forth. Yet awareness of the problem has not brought about necessary urgency. New Bataan, Compostela Valley, one of the places hardest hit by Pablo, is host to numerous banana plantations (for which forest cover had been hacked away) and unregulated gold mining, and the population settlements that support them. In the context of poverty and need for income and shelter, some would continue “business as usual” in disaster-prone zones, and overlook the need for disaster-proofing—until the next disaster strikes.

Obviously it would be difficult, if not impossible, to displace so much economic activity, especially when the lives of the poor depend upon them. Yet they should neither be left to chance the capricious elements. To repeat the last column’s theme, the Philippines’ disaster risk reduction and management system still lacks the muscle to achieve its goals. All described above is the grim future that system will face, the “new normal” for disasters. We are not helpless before catastrophe; neither should we be complacent. Otherwise, names like Ondoy, Pablo or Sendong will be constant refrains of the next ten years.

By Tony La Viña for Manila Standard Today.