January 30, 2012
Building Back a Better Mindanao
Forty-five days after Mindanao bore tropical storm Sendong's whiplash of death and destruction, we witness severely affected cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan pick up and rebuild the pieces of their people's shattered lives.
For days, if not weeks, headlines screamed the cold statistics on the dead and the missing and the confluence of factors that led to the unspeakable disaster.
1,268 lives were lost while 441,022 lives remain affected by a single storm that crosses Mindanao in December every ten years. A study from the Manila Observatory confirmed that tropical storm Sendong was an extreme weather event, as Cagayan de Oro City had a total of 180 millimeters of rainfall in one day, which is higher than the monthly average of 117 mm. Sendong, just like Ondoyin 2009, revealed the exposure and vulnerability of urban populations to extreme weather events.
While the human losses are alarming, the economic damages are also disturbing. The National Economic and Development Authority estimates that of the 59.23 billion pesos total direct and indirect losses caused by typhoons, floods and landslides last year, 17.48 billion pesos was inflicted by Sendong.
A Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) - Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) team reported that mass casualty and extensive damage were due to "extreme flood, absence of flood warning and occurrence in the midnight, settlements in flood-prone areas, inadequate flood control structures, large quantity of debris and logs, and weakness in disaster preparedness."
Without proactive disaster mitigation and better land use planning, these types of extreme weather events will continuously mean more death, sickness, devastation, displacement, and unemployment.
As we move from response and relief - the immediate acts of saving and preserving lives - into recovery and reconstruction - the phase of restoring and rebuilding lives, the real challenge we face is "how to build back a better Mindanao." It will not be enough to build people's lives and communities to where they were before the disaster - we need to rebuild communities with the confidence that we are not rebuilding the risks again; we need to ensure that reconstruction of homes and infrastructure will be in safer ground following sound construction standards; we need to soon re-start and create livelihoods; and restore normalcy in people's lives with a stronger sense of hope and confidence for the future.
In a mission to explore opportunities for the United Nations' support in reducing future risks in the coming recovery and reconstruction phases, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General on Disaster Risk Reduction, Ms. Margareta Wahlstrom, visited the cities of Cagayan De Oro and Iligan last week.
Allow me to comment on some of the assessments from this visit.
As we enter the recovery and reconstruction periods, it was noted that NEDA has done a post-Sendong damage and loss assessment, useful for assessing infrastructure development, but the government decided to skip a social needs assessment. Are we confident that the social aspects for community recovery fully known? While we address infrastructure needs, equal attention must be given to the social needs of affected communities, including for alternative employment and livelihood opportunities.
Related to schools and education, it was noted that there are over a hundred thousand students, which may have been affected by Sendong. These children are spending too much time waiting rather than learning not just because some schools were destroyed, but because many schools are, and will continue to be, used as evacuation centers. The prolonged occupation of schools as evacuation centers prevents the resumption of regular classes, and will affect the long-term development of our children. While the Department of Education looks after schools in these difficult periods, it is unsure who looks for alternative evacuation or transition centers to ensure the regular resumption of classes. And their teachers? It was noted that at least 220 are now homeless and more than 2,000 others displaced. Special support will be needed for them as they are not presently able to access the government's re-housing program.
In building permanent housing, it was noted that the government and members of the private sector have made strong commitments to give support. However, the challenge noted was finding suitable land and ensuring the stability of the structures to be able to withstand the future impact of natural hazards. It was noted that the Government's timetable of rebuilding new houses for affected people in the coming six months is commendable, and if successful, will likely be a new record among countries suffering from similar disasters. However, although the urgency is recognized, it will be imperative that new houses are located and constructed safer.
On early warning, the recent joint report by JICA/DPWH reported that while Severe Weather Bulletins were issued by PAGASA, warnings were not enough for people to take action.
It is often said that early warning systems are only as effective as the "last mile" of the system - the translation of the warning information into suitable action by communities - to evacuate and take shelter. We must ensure that there is a balance between information provision, dissemination, and understanding of the communities, coupled with preparedness and accountability. Our early warning systems must facilitate early actions.
It was also noted that there is an urgent need to empower local institutions that would lead the way in building back a better Mindanao. This will include the building of the capacity of the Local Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Councils, not just in preparedness but also in disaster mitigation activities.
Local government units (LGUs) must also be assisted to utilize existing local financing for reducing and managing disaster risks, and to access additional financing, including from the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Fund.
Further, it was noted that to ensure that the Climate Change Act and DRRM law are fully understood and implemented in the local level, an important first step is the development of risk-sensitive and participatory Comprehensive Land Use Plans (CLUPs). We need to remember that local governments are the first line of defense against disasters, and we need to capacitate them, work with them, and ease administrative burdens where necessary, so that they can take the necessary actions to reduce the impacts of disasters to the lives of people and communities.
Finally, it was noted that there is an urgent need for cooperative efforts in watershed or river-based planning and actions. I recently filed Senate Bill 3105 or the proposed "Philippine River Basin System Administration Act", which recommends a framework to establish a comprehensive river administration system for flood control, water use and environmental conservation.
We know that it is our choices - environmental degradation and bad urban development that worsen the effects of disasters, in addition to the threats of climate change. In fact, we are becoming too familiar with the impacts, but our actions are sadly still lacking.
While we re-build the lives of our people in disaster-stricken areas of Mindanao, it may be good to reflect that a similar disaster is likely waiting to happen in hundred of other places in our country, maybe known already to us. The deadly brew of situations that contributed to the disaster from Sendong is not uncommon in our country, but it seems that we have chosen to focus more on waiting for the next disaster to strike, instead of acting decisively, now.
In addition, a smaller portion of the money we are spending now could be more efficiently spent in dealing with some of the underlying causes of these types of disasters - stopping environmental degradation and reversing the situation where the poor is left to fend for themselves in the most vulnerable locations.
As leaders, we have to make the right choice for our people and their future. While we aim to re-build the lives of people still reeling from this tragedy, we need to ensure that we re-build their lives and their communities better, stronger and more resilient. We should not only give them hope for the present, but confidence in the future.
Ultimately the best choice we have is 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. The time to act is now, especially in places where the disasters are yet to come.
Reducing risk is an investment that pays back handsomely. Let us not wait for the next calamity.
As we re-build back a better Mindanao, let us also start to proactively build a better Philippines.
Thank you, Mr. President.
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