The new (six months on the job) head of the Office of Civil Defense, the agency that is in charge when disasters strike, is Alexander Pama, Vice Admiral (Ret) and former Flag Officer of the Philippine Navy, now the Undersecretary for National Defense. This agency manages the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Commission (a mouthful, with a plateful of tasks). NDRRMC (still a mouthful) can and must be a vital agency for this country rated second most vulnerable in the world for disasters. Indeed, we have the hazards – geological (earthquakes), hydrological (typhoons, storm surges, floods), volcanic (Mayon, Pinatubo). We also have man-made disasters such as the recent Zamboanga siege, the on-going Mindanao conflict. There are too the perils of pandemics i.e. SARS, MERS and Ebola.Mr. Pama intends to manage a pro-active rather than merely reactive agency using anticipation and preparation and a new rulebook about what to do down to the barangay level in case of disasters. Countries that are prepared can cope with disasters in an organized and efficient way that reduces disruption to a manageable minimum. When disasters are not coped with in this way, they cause malfunction in society i.e. deaths, loss of shelter, property, food shortages, epidemics, inadequate medical response, psychological trauma from physical and mental stress that people caught in their experience. Hazards abound but if we can meet them with organized preparedness when they act up, they do not need to become dire disasters.
The biggest gaps in the past as identified by Mr. Pama is institutional weakness to disaster response. Unpreparedness is the main culprit that results in hasty and ad hoc solutions in lieu of permanent and effective answers. The latter must be anticipated and planned. In the past with a historical record of 20 typhoons a year, propensity to earthquakes, volcanic eruptions resulting in floods, damage to infrastructure and agriculture, lives lost and in peril, we have generally reacted without serious planning for such eventualities.
With the advent of Ondoy, the 2010 flood phenomenon in Metro Manila, the issue of preparedeness was taken seriously and a new law passed to address the inadequacies of our reactive responses. RA 1121 created NDRRMC and included in it besides a spectrum of government agencies, like DOST, DILG, DSWD, DND, NEDA and civil societies. The idea was to prepare for future disasters all the way down to the barangays. This is the law that the Office of Civil Defense with Mr. Pama in charge has to implement. Cabinet level involvement and cooperation is mandated and the appointment of local focus persons from each department is obligatory
A Pre-Risk Assessment must be done and put in place using all local and international knowledge and standards so that awareness is diffused in all who must play a part in mitigating vulnerability. Japan, Australia and Canada are assisting the Office of Civil Defense on how to conduct drills, institutionalize hazard awareness and mapping evacuation plans from their own research and experience.
The challenges are for the LGU s to rise to the need. Will people realize and accept that they are ultimately responsible for their own well-being by cooperating with government efforts? Will they listen to the new rules for moving away from hazards, follow evacuation plans, accept drills which may cause disturbance and discomfort to their everyday lives but may be essential to saving them ultimately?
The public must demand (based on looking after their own well-being) adequate disaster preparedness from their LGU’s, just as the LGU’s must demand their cooperation. A learning process is needed to put RA 1121 in place and at work.
LGUs must set aside 5% of their budget for disaster preparedness, their contribution to the national effort in this direction. One kink is the procurement process for acquiring the materials for disaster preparedness. On the LGU level it is said to be an obstacle course of cumbersome regulations that need to be refined for practical purposes. Experience should show how to do it better.
The law itself needs tweaking as the interagency dynamics must be streamlined. With the need for proactive work in place, in depth local focus where boots are on the ground is a must. Perhaps NDRRMC or the Office of Civil Defense should be a more independent body, not under the Department of National Defense or NEDA, who have a lot on their plates, so that it can move quickly.
Fortunately, RA 1121 provides for a “Sunset Review” scheduled for May 15, 2015 where suggestions for tweaking it will be studied and recommended for amendments to it. Lawmakers and agency officials can put their heads together to assess and solve what still needs to be done on the matter of disaster preparedness. Agencies involved must have people on the ground not paper plans waiting for others to implement.
The law is in place but it must prove effective for which it must readjust to reality. People too must cooperate with it by being aware and putting faith, confidence and trust in the equation.
Alexander Pama explained all the above at the last annual Jaime V. Ongpin Memorial Lecture on November 6 at Ateneo in Rockwell. He reflected the strategic reconfiguration that this country is embarked on as to how to cope with disasters from now on.
It is no less than a paradigm shift that should make the future response better than the past.