Beyond the landfall: What must be done to improve PH disaster readiness?

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — On an afternoon in Poblacion, Polillo, Quezon, heavy rains beat down the rooftop of Lucky Borreo Evardome's house. Streams of rainwater slowly leak down the walls, pooling on the floor.

Evardome rushes to grab a mop to clean up the mess. He takes a quick glance outside the window only to see gray and foggy skies over his town.

Super Typhoon Karding has arrived.

However, Karding was just one of the many tropical cyclones that hit the Philippines this year. According to the state weather bureau PAGASA, an average of 20 tropical cyclones enter the Philippine Area of Responsibility yearly.

In 2022 alone, tropical cyclones left at least 293 Filipinos dead and 310 injured (these account for validated reports only). The cost of damage to agriculture was estimated at ₱5.9 billion and to infrastructure, ₱7.3 billion

But as the effects of climate change worsen, the country remains more vulnerable than ever to the lasting impact of storms.

What must be done now to improve the country's disaster risk reduction management (DRRM)?

On evacuations, relief operations

A Pulse Asia survey conducted in September found that President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.'s administration received +75 for its response to calamity-hit areas - the highest among the national issues covered by the poll.

So what has the government done to garner such a high approval rating?

As a Polillo resident, which was badly hit by Karding, Evardome rated the government's DRRM an 8 out of 10.

He explained that the local government was able to evacuate citizens days ahead of Karding's landfall.

He added that the government was quick in its distribution of cash aid and relief goods: "Maraming pumunta rito ng mga tulong, especially from DSWD (Department of Social Welfare and Development). Agad-agad sila nagpadala ng mga relief goods, nagba-box. Ilang beses na dumating dito ng chopper tapos may mga aid pa from other LGU (local government units.)"

[Translation: "We received a lot of help, especially from DSWD. They immediately sent in boxed relief goods. There were also times that they arrived via chopper plus we also received aid from other LGUs."]

Based on CNN Philippines’ own computation of figures from the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council's (NDRRMC's) 2022 situational reports, the government provided ₱1.67 billion worth of disaster relief assistance in 2022.

The pivot to anticipatory planning

UP Resilience Institute Executive Director Alfredo Mahar Lagmay said government officials were right to immediately question the lack of programs that could have prevented the typhoons' damage.

"I think [President Bongbong Marcos] was asking the right questions. Anong nangyayari? Matagal na tayo nagpe-prepare sa bagyo, ba't ganito? [What happened? We've been preparing for a long time for storms, but why is this happening now?]" Lagmay said. "It only goes to [show] that there is recognition that there is something that has changed, that there is something that we failed to anticipate and that failure of anticipation is perhaps due to the changes in the climate."

Lagmay added that the new administration has been making strides to continue and strengthen the implementation of the National Climate Risk Management Framework.

This framework, which is detailed in Commission Resolution No. 2019-001, calls for an improved DRRM to address the adverse impacts of climate change.

It also calls for all sectors to anticipate the potential losses and damage and to prepare accordingly.

Lagmay said the Climate Change Commission, which is under the Office of the President, has also been pushing for the national and local governments to conduct a probabilistic climate risk assessment.

This would consider all future scenarios given the worsening effects of climate change.

Lagmay said this is a major step up as past plans were usually based on the impact of previous typhoons.

Structural problems

On the other hand, Amor Tan Singco of the Center for Disaster Preparedness Foundation highlighted several structural problems.

The country's DRRM plan is anchored on Republic Act No. 10121, which has created a multilayered participatory body from the national government down to barangays.

Under the plan, local DRRM councils remain at the helm of building community disaster resilience.

Tan Singco said for it to work, various sectors from the community must participate.

"Local response will only be as good as the training received, resources effectively utilized, responders prepositioned, and the mainstreaming of risk reduction in local development plans by the local officials," she added.

Not only that, considering that local government elections take place every three years, there is a need to address the lack of continuity in maintaining LGUs' existing disaster resilience programs.

In some cases, the revolving door of LGU officials forces disaster resilience programs to go back to square one after elections. Some successors would not be informed that they would have to conduct a thorough risk assessment and hazard mapping to base their plans on.

"Meron kaming experience nung nawala [ang captain], dinala yung mga data and plans kasi di siya nanalo. Dinala niya buong cabinet niya. Eh di gagawa ulit ang barangay ng [DRRM]. Maganda sana kung mayroon nang historic na pagbabasehan," Tan Singco said.

[Translation: We once experienced a barangay captain leaving and taking with him all the data, plans, and his entire cabinet because he wasn't reelected. That means the barangay has to plan their DRRM from square one. It would have been better if there was a historical record to base future plans on.]

She recalled seeing LGUs copy-paste plans from other towns. Moreover, outdated plans would not account for more recent changes in the climate.

Tan Singco added that structural problems are further worsened by limited funds and resources, especially in low-income communities.

What now?

Lagmay suggested that to improve the country's DRRM plan, all sectors of society must be tapped in anticipatory planning.

"When you plan communities, it must be anticipatory, and not just for evacuation centers but planning across all sectors, education, tourism, energy, coastal, environment, forestry, agriculture - and so on," he said.

Lagmay added that the government may tap experts from the academe in anticipatory planning.

Meanwhile, Tan Singco said youth participation can help in promoting disaster preparedness in communities.

"Halimbawa, pag sinabi mong 'contingency plan,' yung mga ngayon lang maririnig ang termino sa community, magugulat sila. In our projects, active youth groups in barangays are able to translate this to them to explain that, 'Eto yung life-saving na plano para makapaghanda ang bawat tahanan, purok, at komunidad,'" she said.

[Translation: For example, when you say 'contigency plan,' the community would feel confused. In our projects, active youth groups in barangays are able to translate this to them to explain that, 'This is the life-saving plan that can improve the quality of homes, districts, and communities.']

In the end, Lagmay said for a DRRM plan to be considered truly effective, there should be zero casualties after a storm.

"Ang long-term goal natin is zero casualties and minimal losses and damage. Wala ka naman ni-rescue kasi you planned well… Kasi kapag nakapag-plan ka ng mabuti, people and development are out of harm's way," he said.

[Translation: Our long-term goals are zero casualties and minimal losses and damage. You won't have anyone to rescue because you planned well. When you plan well, people and development are out of harm's way.]