As we face the difficult task of recovering and rebuilding from the devastation caused by Typhoon “Pablo” in Mindanao, we ought to revisit the tragedies of the past and relearn the lessons we seem to never learn: Community awareness and action in disaster risk reduction, sound development planning and the political will to make things happen can make the difference in saving lives and building a safe and resilient community.
When the heavy rains of Typhoon “Gener” triggered major landslides in the populated barangay of Cunsad in Alimodian, Iloilo, last July, roads and farmlands were destroyed, yet no lives and limbs were lost. We wonder: How was this possible? What role did the local government play in saving human lives?
In this Iloilo town, the natural signs of an impending landslide such as ground fissures and displacement showed up as early as last year, which the municipal government under Mayor Juanito Alipao immediately reported to the Mines and Geosciences Bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources for risk assessment.
Upon the advice of geologists to relocate residents, the local leadership acted quickly to explain the landslide threat to families at risk and to persuade them to heed the advice.
In the aftermath of the devastating landslide in Cunsad, residents were grateful to the local government for having saved their lives and properties. Now, all 51 barangays of Alimodian have drawn up hazard-risk maps, aware of the dangers they face from typhoons and other natural hazards as well as how to keep safe from harm.
In hindsight, had the local governments acted promptly on the flood risk assessment for Cagayan de Oro and Iligan City, and heeded the call to relocate residents at risk, the impact of Tropical Storm “Sendong” (international name: “Washi”) in December 2011 would not have been of unprecedented scale.
Another notable best practice in the country is the purok system in the municipality of San Francisco in Camotes Island, Cebu, which won the 2011 United Nations Sasakawa Award for Disaster Reduction.
The purok system focuses on addressing the vulnerability of every barangay by mobilizing local resources in creating practical solutions based on the unique needs of the community.
Residents are vigilant in implementing segregation at source—strictly enforcing their no-trash-segregation-no-collection policy, recycling, composting and the collection of payment for carbon taxes, which are based on the amount of domestic waste produced from day to day.
The town of San Francisco, along with Makati City and Albay province, is also among the UN’s 29 model communities worldwide in disaster-risk reduction (DRR) and management.
Makati was cited for integrating DRR practices and policies in its system of governance, most especially in urban planning, health programs, disaster response and risk governance, while Albay was recognized for its focus on preparing comprehensive land use plans that address climate and disaster risks, and investing in disaster-resilient infrastructure.
In Montalban, Rizal, a group of women farmers have started to practice agroforestry to adapt to the prolonged wet season; while in Hinatuan, Surigao del Sur, women fisherfolk have reforested over a hundred hectares of mangrove to protect their settlements from storm surges and secure additional sources of food.
The townspeople of Hinatuan unclogged canals, cleaned up their surroundings and the seawater, and regulated plastic use and reduced greenhouse gas emissions through a waste management program that supported local compliance of the law.
Clearly, if these communities can effectively enforce our environmental laws and create strategies for climate change adaptation, there is no reason for other towns, cities or provinces to say that it cannot be done.
Fundamentally, adapting to our fast-changing environment entails constant assessment of risk in our midst. It is high time that every local development plan seriously consider the threats posed by natural hazards and climate change, and aim at reducing exposure and losses in lives, livelihoods and properties. Hazard maps and risk assessments must be basic planning tools.
Pablo has unveiled the vulnerability of our Mindanao communities to typhoons, landslides and flash floods. At least 1,067 have lost their lives, while 2,666 are injured and 834 are still missing. The damage to agriculture, infrastructure and property now stands at well over P39 billion.
It is undeniable that this vulnerability is driven mostly by poverty, socioeconomic inequality and environmental degradation. Our local leaders, therefore, need to understand how disasters are woven inextricably in a vicious cycle with these three factors.
Poverty breeds disaster vulnerability as those who have least in life risk life most. It is the poor who are more likely to live in unsafe locations and in weakly built structures. It is the poor who suffer most with long-term consequences since they have less means to recover.
Making a difference
Thus, it is only in addressing altogether poverty, livelihood, environment and disaster risk that local governance can make a genuine difference.
With climate change and extreme weather events as the “new normal,” our country cannot afford recurring tragedies and disaster losses from storms such as Sendong and Pablo in Mindanao.
It is estimated that in every destructive typhoon season we lose as much as 2 percent of our GDP, further costing the country 2 percent for reconstruction or a combined economic setback of almost 5 percent every year.
As we welcome 2013, we hope to instill in the mind of every leader and citizen the wisdom to make our nation disaster-resilient to free us, once and for all, from the exhausting and costly cycle of rebuilding our communities every single time nature unleashes its wrath.
We aim to have more workshops in 2013 for sharing of best practices among local government units, while providing information about the People’s Survival Fund, to build up resilience to natural hazards.
Climate change adaptation, disaster preparedness and risk reduction constitute our greatest humanitarian challenge. We can overcome these challenges if our mechanisms in place actually address the specific vulnerabilities present in each community.
Certainly, reducing disaster risk effectively for sustainable growth is a mark of good governance and good political leadership. To make a difference in this sphere is clearly the leadership challenge of our times.