Not because the recent spate of earthquakes in Japan and Ecuador has triggered local fears of a Big One here at home, but because we need a coherent view and understanding of how natural disasters truly impact our country and our people, we call attention today to the paramount need to upgrade and modernize the nation’s mechanism and system for disaster management and emergency response.
Supertyphoon Yolanda is now two and a half years past (it made landfall in our country on November 8, 2013), but the scars and lessons of incompetence and mismanagement remain.
The drought in Mindanao is severe and devastating, but the violence and tragedy that struck down protesting farmers in Kidapawan City might have been averted, had there been in place an effective agency for helping the farmers in distress. We say might because the incompetent kind of Aquino Administration officials could have also failed to use or made a mess of the resources of their government agency.
It is the same with every natural disaster that has hit the country during the Aquino Administration; once disaster hits, government was always caught with its pants down and had little to show.
In the Annual Disaster Review published by the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, the Philippines is consistently listed as one of the top five countries most frequently hit by natural disasters.
The other four are China, the United States, Indonesia and India.
Membership in the list is ascribed to three main factors:
1. Location – the countries are positioned in a way that makes them vulnerable to typhoons, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tsunamis, and heavy rainfall that leads to flooding.
2. Size — in terms of land mass, the US is third, China fourth, India seventh, Indonesia 14th and the Philippines is 67th in the world. Compared to the other four, the Philippines is comparatively small, but our 7,107 islands are spread over a considerable area, and we have one of the longest coastlines in the world.
3.Multiple risks – all the top five countries are subject to a wide variety of disasters.
The hazards include earthquakes, tropical cyclones, landslides, wildfires, inland flooding, coastal inundation caused by storm surge or tsunami, and a host of other perils. Drought is also considered a natural disaster.
It should be logical and commonsensical that as a country that is vulnerable to frequent and multiple natural disasters, the Philippines should have its own permanent and capable disaster management government body, like the other top five countries.
Yet inexplicably, what our country has in place is an anachronistic and sluggish disaster coordinating council, instead of an agency totally dedicated to and specializing in ensuring the protection and welfare of the people and communities during disasters and emergencies.
We call our coping mechanism The National Disaster Risk Reduction & Management Council (NDRRMC).
The Council says it utilizes the UN Cluster Approach in disaster management. With its lengthy list of departments, agencies and organizations that are considered part of the council, it looks as though the council seeks to surround a disaster instead of surmounting it.
At the height of the emergency and devastation wrought by Supertyphoon Yolanda, CNN broadcaster Anderson Cooper was moved to report that there was no civil defense in the Philippines. Our country was virtually defenseless before the biggest typhoon in recorded history.
Within hours after the recent earthquake struck, Japan had in place 25,000 self-defense forces to cope with the disaster, and undertake emergency operations.
This is what civil defense means. It is an effort to protect the citizens of a state during an emergency, through emergency operations: prevention, mitigation, preparation, response, or emergency evacuation and recovery.
We raise the subject of disasters and disaster preparedness now because we stand just a month or so away from the coming of the monsoon rains and the annual typhoons. Natural disasters do not happen according to schedule, but always as an emergency.
During this period of normality and relative calm, the government–with prodding from the citizens– should take the time to review the prevailing policy on disaster management.
We should proactively change, reorganize and expand the nation’s policy and system for disaster management and Emergency Response.
According to the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), the Philippines was hit by at least 274 typhoons and other natural disasters between 1995 and 2015.
This single statistic, without counting yet the toll in lives and damage to property that disasters bring, is a powerful argument for replacing the NDRRMC with a professional disaster management agency, like what they have in Japan and the United States.
We must make this change before the next disaster strikes us.