I had to rush early morning last Tuesday to my laboratory at the National Institute of Physics to check its state due to the incessant rains brought about by the enhanced monsoon or habagat. True to what I expected, there was water flowing in the fabrication area threatening the power supply and equipment housed there. Together with my students and some staff members of the lab, we moved the equipment away and turned off the power in anticipation of continued rains.
The incident reminded me of the scale of the problems that can be caused by floodings especially to vulnerable communities. Our lab building has its own vulnerability brought most probably by design problems. These buiding problems can be addressed by repairing the leaks and construction issues. What is more difficult is how to “repair” and address the problems inherent to our vulnerable communities.
These communities are not vulnerable by design. They are vulnerable because of their poverty and economic situation. We can let them stay near waterways or relocate them or provide them housing but until we address how they can endure hazards without ending up poorer than they are right now, we will be doing nothing in reducing their vulnerability.
There are, of course, other ways to increase their capacity to face hazards. These hazards can range from typhoons to flooding to fires and earthquakes. What we can do is to inform and prepare them on what to do when these hazards arrive. We usually have fire drills and earthquake drills but only rarely do we hear about flooding drills in communities. There have been some cities implementing such programs but it not yet the norm for many.
There are around 20 typhoons every year entering the country and we have seen for the past few years that monsoons can be severely enhanced by these weather disturbances. This means that these flooding incidents are to be expected and as such should be prepared for every year.
The recent habagat event this week has been dumping more rain than Ondoy had in 2009. Reports have said that it has even exceeded nearly twice the monthly average as measured at Pagasa Science Garden in Quezon City. The difference was that Ondoy brought its 455 mm of rain in a shorter period than this habagat. We are also lucky that most of the rain fell on Manila Bay rather than our watersheds.
On the other side of capacity building is information. We have scientists at the National Institute of Geological Sciences manning the fort through Project NOAH (Nationwide Operational Assessment of Hazards). Weather forecasting and data management is one area where we need our PhDs and graduate students in meteorology to do. We cannot afford letting them go to greener pastures and leave us holding the bag empty.
Project NOAH presents a data heavy website where one can already see the amount of rain currently pouring in an area together with other instrumentation data. In the future, this would be enhanced with high resolution maps and more sensors that would integrate landslide hazards and water hazards into one portal. Currently, they also have applications for IOS and Android where one can see the situation on their mobile devices.
Despite its promise, the site is still daunting to the ordinary user. One has to know what he or she is looking for and for what. The rainfall contour is understandable but what would the radar plots, the inundation data, etc mean to ordinary visitors? We have heard how the DOST gave tablets to local government units that can access Project NOAH. We hope they could digest this data-rich site to respond properly to hazards. Project NOAH can probably make a digest page to simplify the massive amount of data for those who simply want to know the situation in their area while providing a link to the numbers behind these plots.
On the other hand, we need not go to the other extreme and do away with Project NOAH and the like. People do not simply want to know if they would have to stay home, they need to know if their home will be inundated and by how much. This should then trigger the appropriate response and if properly prepared, the community can respond efficiently to disasters that may come to them.
But information and preparation is just one side of disaster preparation. Adaptation and capacity building can only go so much. The deeper problem is how to reduce vulnerability by increasing domestic economic activity through stable jobs and lowered cost of living. This is where the Aquino government should be doing its most: building industrial capacity and bringing prices down by reversing the privatization of utilities and liberalization of the goods that everyone needs.