Why paralysis, systems collapse, chaos happened | Inquirer News

Why paralysis, systems collapse, chaos happened

/ 04:28 AM November 15, 2014

PLAYTIME Children in Basey, Samar province, find joy in each other’s company as they play on a swing. Basey was one of the areas heavily damaged by Supertyphoon “Yolanda.”

PLAYTIME Children in Basey, Samar province, find joy in each other’s company as they play on a swing. Basey was one of the areas heavily damaged by Supertyphoon “Yolanda.” MICHAEL LIM UBAC

(10th of a series)

Supertyphoon “Yolanda” (international name: Haiyan) last year unleashed the full destructive force of a climatic event: Preexisting risks, particularly in coastal communities, were amplified and exacerbated, consistent with the predicted effects of human-induced climate change.


Yolanda proved how climatic events could aggravate bad conditions that compromised the stability of complex societies such as Leyte and Samar provinces, whose coastal towns bore the brunt of the 7-meter storm surges unleashed by Yolanda on Nov. 8, 2013.


But the strongest storm to ever hit land also brought out the best in people, near and far.

There was an unprecedented outpouring of support from generous donors in the aftermath of Yolanda, with assistance from local and foreign relief agencies, and overseas private organizations quickly arriving on the scene.

Without being prodded, the armed forces of foreign countries also deployed their rescue personnel and C-130 cargo planes to Cebu International Airport, the designated hub for incoming relief goods, to bring in aid. All of them tirelessly toiled not for the glory of their nations, but to pay allegiance to a unified front of humankind against a common foe: Climate change.

To date, as much as P19 billion of the P73.31 billion in international aid pledges has been downloaded to recipients in the stricken communities.

Yolanda thus provided humankind with a solid proof of past human activities having resonance with disasters besetting modern-day societies. The massive relief efforts generated a template of sorts for collectively dealing with climate change, which is chiefly blamed on the increased concentration of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere that warms the planet and triggers adverse climatic events.

In March 2014, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) confirmed the long-term global warming trend.


Societal collapse

“We saw heavier precipitation, more intense heat, and more damage from storm surges and coastal flooding as a result of sea-level rise—as Typhoon Haiyan so tragically demonstrated in the Philippines,” said WMO Secretary General Michel Jarraud in a statement.

A tropical storm is not an isolated event, while societal collapse is rarely a one­time event. A series of smaller breakdowns of complex societies for various reasons across different time periods usually precedes a massive societal collapse.

Reasons that led to collapse

Three of the major reasons that led to the collapse of hardest-hit areas in Eastern Visayas in the aftermath of Yolanda are climate change, severe environmental damage and government’s unresponsiveness toward these problems.

The storm surge was not the cause of the systemic breakdown that characterized the aftermath of Yolanda in Eastern Visayas.

The Yolanda catastrophe was a disaster waiting to happen—the superstorm was just the last nail in the coffin of an impoverished region battling decadeslong environmental, food, climate and security challenges.

Increases in frequency and intensity of tropical cyclones and storm surges place coastal communities in the Philippines at higher risk of inundation and even the possibility of collapse.

It is true that modern societies have the ability and technology to cope with environmental stresses. But this advantage is attenuated by the people’s inability to learn from their mistakes, and apply the lessons of past societal collapses.

Thus, there is a cogent need for new policies that will place coastal communities in a much better position to respond to the challenges of the planet’s altered environment by mitigating risks and building resilience.

Paradigm shift

It is important to recognize the Leyte-Samar disaster as an example of societal collapse because this paradigm shift would dictate the kind of policies that would govern the post-Yolanda recovery and rehabilitation period.

Failing to recognize the real nature of this environmental threat to societal stability, the responses of the actors (governments, donor communities and typhoon survivors themselves) would tend to be short-term and parochial.

When the next cycle of tropical storms comes, with its deadly storm surges and unpredictable intensity, the land’s carrying capacity, preexisting hazards where communities are located and the built-in resiliency of the people (because of knowledge of past storms) would be put under severe pressure anew.

Natural hazard ‘hot spot’

Amid the uncertainties that come with climate change, it’s just a matter of time before the Leyte-Samar disaster is repeated with a strike from another superstorm.

Note that there were many smaller societal disruptions or breakdowns that occurred between the 1900s and 2013, as the Leyte-Samar corridor is along the Pacific typhoon belt.

In a study of hazards recorded in the 20th century, Greg Bankoff (2007) found the Philippines one of the world’s natural hazard “hot spots,” experiencing the “most events requiring international assistance” such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, typhoons, floods, droughts and landslides more than any other country.

Bankoff noted that between 1900 and 1991, there were 702 disasters, or an average of eight a year, hitting the Philippines.

This constant barrage of climate change and other environmental stresses, along with handicapped responses of society to them, acts as a potent destabilizing force that undermines the stability of a society, and ultimately precipitates its collapse.

Leyte and Samar were hit by a similar disaster 101 years ago when a superstorm struck the Visayas in November 1912, killing 15,000 people and destroying Tacloban, and wrought damage and loss of lives in other parts in the region.

Wake-up call

Yolanda is proof that no country is exempted from the effects of climate change, and that extreme weather events disproportionately affect countries. The superstorm is a wake-up call for the world to rein in carbon emissions, as, indeed, mankind has already exceeded the cap.

Thus, there is a need to rethink the development model that the world has pursued since the Industrial Age—bigger, higher, faster economic growth—that has been exacting a heavy toll on both people and environment.

Humankind’s fixation on maintaining economic growth consequently exacts an ever-escalating demand for energy, fueling a vicious cycle of energy economy that is constantly needed to sustain complexity and order in societies.

Stabilizing societies amid the certainty of collapse entails a fundamental reassessment of the values we believe in as a society, and an acceptance that we live on the same planet. In short, we hold in our hands the power to change the future by learning from the past.

Policy recommendations

To prevent the worst, several policy proposals are in order to prevent future short-term breakdowns that, if prevented, could lead to long-term or permanent collapse, especially in coastal areas in the Philippines.

This should be pursued through a combination of measures that will rehabilitate environmental damage, enhance the adaptive capacity of society to respond to these threats and mitigate the effects of climate change.

The policy proposals will help concerned government agencies, civilian populace and global community better prepare and respond to future calamities by mitigating risks and building resiliency, with the objective of advocating a shift from bias toward short-term development gains to long-term sustainability.

On building resiliency to storm surges:

Coastal rehabilitation by massive replanting and restoration of mangrove forests.

Permanent “no-build zones” along the Gulf of Leyte. Survivors have already rebuilt their homes along battered coastlines for two reasons: Delay in the construction of permanent shelter, and the fishermen’s need to be close to the sea. But the delineation of easement areas reserved for mangrove stands logically requires a ban on resettlement along Leyte Gulf.

The government should hold the line on this: The 40-meter restriction from rebuilding homes, which was announced in December 2013, should stay. With the unpredictability of the actual path and intensity of storm surges, not to mention uncertainties associated with climate change, coastal settlements should be banned.

Affected families should be given priority in the apportionment of housing built inland as an incentive to move out of danger zones.

Now is the best time to implement this rather unorthodox policy, as Tacloban is still in the rehabilitation phase and coastal villages have yet to permanently rebuild their storm-damaged homes.

On enhancing adaptive capacity:

To enhance the Leyte-Samar area’s capacity to adequately respond to its environmental problems, adaptation is the key. There is a need to link climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction in the local level.

The United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) says disaster risk reduction is achieved through “systematic efforts to analyze and manage the causal effects of disasters, including through hazards, lessened vulnerability of people and property, wise management of land and the environment, and improved preparedness for adverse effects.”

Adaptation is not merely coping with risks, according to Sen. Loren Legarda, the UNISDR champion for disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation, and author of the Climate Change Act of 2009 and Philippine Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act.

Legarda stressed that there will be less to rehabilitate and recover when effective disaster prevention and risk reduction programs are in place.

“We know that prevention is better. We should see disaster risk reduction as a worthy investment, not a cost. The World Bank says that a dollar invested in prevention yields

$7 to $14 saved in response cost,” she said.

The Climate Change Act requires the government to “strengthen, integrate, consolidate and institutionalize government initiatives” to deal with climate change in the context of sustainable development.

Losses due to the combined effects of Tropical Storm “Ondoy” (international name: Ketsana) and Tropical Depression “Pepeng” (Parma) in 2009 were equivalent to 2.7 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), while Yolanda losses in 2013 were equivalent to about 5 percent of the GDP.

“We can certainly reduce the impacts of these hazards if we are better prepared. Furthermore, climate change impacts have resulted in disasters of unprecedented proportions, causing multiple losses—economic, social, political and even cultural. We can no longer dismiss the interconnection among the issues of climate change, disasters and poverty,” Legarda said.

A study by the Asian Development Bank showed that the Philippines stands to lose 6 percent of its GDP annually by 2100 if it disregards climate change risks. But if the country invests just 0.5 percent of its GDP by 2020 in climate change adaptation, it can avert losses of up to 4 percent of its GDP by 2100.

Misunderstanding ‘storm surge’

Corollary to that proposal, Congress should enact a new measure to unlock funds for adaptation, especially at the local government level.

Adequate funding is the lynchpin of any adaptation framework. Local governments should also formulate local climate action plans through local ordinances.

To prevent panic and paralysis during environmental crises, the government should strive for effective and efficient coordination of all organizations to managing responses. To achieve this, emphasis should be on preparedness rather than response.

The government should have effective and efficient coordination among all groups in managing responses, with clearly delineated roles, and distribution to all local governments of detailed geohazard maps and flooding or storm surge models ahead of time.

In the case of Yolanda, President Aquino did warn local governments in the Visayas of the possibility of storm surges but the national government committed two major blunders in its haste to broadcast the storm surge warning: It failed to accurately specify the point of impact and it used jargon, “storm surge,” instead of “tsunami-like waves,” a term that has more resonance with townsfolk in Leyte and Samar since they are accustomed to typhoons and coastal flooding.

Lifestyle change

On mitigating effects of climate change:

Under the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility,” the global community should scale back carbon dioxide emissions and other harmful gases to be able to stabilize the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

For the oft-repeated demand for drastic reduction of fossil fuel emissions to actually work, a lifestyle change for all is imperative. The world should use technological options for reducing carbon dioxide that now exist.


Yolanda – Before and After

We’ll survive, with or without President Aquino—Yolanda survivors

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TAGS: Haiyan, Leyte, Samar, WMO

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