Extreme weather: Heavy rains, floods are ‘new norm’
Typhoons are normal occurrences in a tropical country like the Philippines, with about 20 typhoons hitting the country every year. Lately, however, the Philippines has been experiencing increasing torrential rains even without typhoons. Intense rains, flooded streets, heavy traffic and stranded commuters are becoming part everyday life in Metropolitan Manila and other parts of the country.
The heavy and excessive rainfall we are experiencing is part of what climate scientists call “the new norm.” This means we are experiencing weather extremes that are more widespread and harder to predict.
As the Philippines is an archipelago, 70 per cent of its towns and cities are built on the coasts, areas highly susceptible to floods and storm surges. And as extreme weather events intensify, our communities and citizens, especially those unprepared and therefore vulnerable, are exposed to greater risks.
A 2013 World Bank report showed that 74 per cent of the Philippines’ population are vulnerable to the impact of natural hazards. The Philippines recorded 2,630 disaster-related deaths in 2012, a global record for that year.
The challenges brought by the new norm are daunting, but the solution can start with us, with simple personal practices, and everyone’s effort put together. After all, it makes a big difference when a tree is planted in every yard, or a plastic bottle is recycled instead of being dumped in a pile of other non-biodegradable trash, or when households, thinking of the welfare of others, manage their waste, or even as simple as buying only what we need.
We are not lacking in laws and policies that should help us achieve sustainable and disaster-resilient communities.
The list is long and includes the Philippine Environmental Impact Statement System, Marine Pollution Control Law, the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Ecological Solid Waste Management Act, Renewable Energy Act, Environmental Awareness and Education Act, Climate Change Act, the Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act, Toxic Substances and Hazardous and Nuclear Wastes Control Act and the Act Creating the People’s Support Fund.
A great number of environmental and climate change laws, however, is not a guarantee of security. Unless these laws are strictly enforced, they are nothing more than scraps of paper.
Many of these laws were passed decades ago; others are more recent. Different times present different challenges, so the first order of the day is to ensure that our laws are responsive to present challenges.
We must also ensure the effective and legally compliant implementation of environmental and climate change laws. To establish the state of implementation of these laws, an environmental audit is necessary. Regulations arising from these laws need to be looked at and implementation details covering licensing and permitting procedures, monitoring, inspection and data collection have to be reviewed.
Above all, the state of enforcement needs to be assessed for it is by effective enforcement that we can ensure compliance in practice with environmental legislation.
Funding, the usual theme of the implementing agencies’ excuse for implementation and enforcement gaps, also needs to be reviewed so that our expectations of agency performance can be matched with the means to deliver.
This environmental audit, which I will pursue as a priority, will bring together the experiences and opinions of experts, government agencies, and the public, with a view not just to identifying the issues, but more important, to demolishing the roadblocks to implementation.
Let us take a look at the implementation of the decade-old Solid Waste Management Act. Statistics from the National Economic and Development Authority show that only nine out of 17 local governments in Metro Manila have submitted a solid waste management plan.
Meanwhile, only 414 of 1,610 local governments nationwide have complied with the national plan as of 2012, which translates into only 25.7-percent compliance rate.
Perhaps, local governments can learn from the small town of San Francisco in Camotes Island, Cebu, which received the 2011 United Nations Sasakawa Award for Disaster Risk Reduction for their “purok system.” Residents implemented segregation at source, strictly enforcing their “no trash segregation-no collection” policy.
A paragon of community-led waste management is the third-class municipality of Hinatuan in Surigao del Sur, whose townspeople worked together in cleaning clogged canals, their surroundings and seawater, and regulated the use of plastics. Their waste management program was so effective that they won the 2010 Zero Basura Olympics, a national advocacy campaign geared toward a zero-waste Philippines.
In building resilience to natural hazards, we need to ensure that the national and local governments are always prepared to respond to disasters and all sectors are engaged in disaster risk reduction.
Toward that end, we must develop an efficient system of gathering and disseminating hazard and risk information that is linked to early warning systems. For weather and climate, the long overdue modernization of the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration must be prioritized. Part of that effort is keeping our meteorologists in the Philippines.
We should protect our farmers and fisherfolk from the impact of typhoons and recurring weather extremes like the El Niño and La Niña phenomena, through social protection programs such as crop insurance.
We should also invest more in renewable energy and ensure proper management of our natural resources.
We need to improve the country’s water management programs, land-use policies, building and zoning plans, enhance the resilience of our schools and hospitals, promote sustainable housing, and improve urban and rural development planning.
We should promote green infrastructure by creating green campuses with forest parks and vegetable gardens, practice waste segregation, and build rainwater catchments. We can build on the gains of the Best School Forest Park, a nationwide public school project of Luntiang Pilipinas and the Department of Education.
We must strengthen livelihood for the poor and the vulnerable by promoting green jobs and skills in agriculture, forestry, horticulture, environmental information technology and other careers that contribute to environmental preservation.
We should also establish proficient and efficient health emergency management systems, especially in major urban centers like Metro Manila, Metro Cebu and Metro Davao, to save more lives and limbs and to deliver emergency medical services in times of disaster.
We can also look into creating community-based ecotourism codes that promote tourism and environmental conservation. The Bohol Tourism Code is a good resource for other provinces looking to have their own ecotourism programs. Bohol developed an environment-friendly ecotourism industry featuring a cultural adventure that combines the efforts of five municipalities: Maribojoc, Catigbian, Balilihan, Cortes and Antequera.
Meanwhile, we must use geohazard maps in urban and rural planning, including the relocation of vulnerable communities to safer places. Barangay Andap in New Bataan, Compostela Valley, is a purple area on the geohazard map, which means it is highly susceptible to flooding. The disaster triggered by Typhoon “Pablo” last December could have been prevented if the risks and vulnerabilities of the area had been known and dealt with early by the community and local officials.
In contrast, when heavy rains brought by Typhoon “Gener” caused major landslides in the populated barangay of Cunsad in Alimodian, Iloilo, in July 2012, no casualties were reported, because when the natural signs of impending disaster showed up in the area early on, the municipal government immediately asked the Mines and Geosciences Bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to help assess the risks. The municipal officials heeded the advice of geologists to relocate the residents, saving the lives of everyone in the community.
Today, all 51 barangays of Alimodian have hazard-risk maps and they are aware of the dangers they face from typhoons and other natural hazards. And they know how to keep safe from harm during typhoons.
On top of all these, we need to conduct an effective and interactive education and information campaign to make people constantly aware of dangers posed by natural disasters, encourage them to participate in the reduction of disaster risks, and engage them in environmental conservation efforts.
We cannot prevent typhoons, but the many good practices and success stories we have tell us we can weather the challenges of the new norm.
(Editor’s Note: Sen. Loren Legarda is the chair of the Senate climate change committee and a United Nations champion for disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation bestowed in 2007.)