(Article published in the Feb 22, 2006 issue of Manila Standard Today)
Less than a week after still President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo ordered all government agencies to prepare for the coming of La Niña, La Niña confirms her arrival, if she is not already officially arrived. Hundreds were buried (and probably some still are) under the mudslide caused by unusually heavy and incessant rains in Leyte.
As we spend time sending whatever aid we can to the victims and their families, we ought to devote some moments to ask if we are adequately protected against the risk not only of rains, typhoons and floods, but also of other natural disasters.
Even if we do not count in its current crop of politicians, there is no doubt that the Philippines has more than its fair share of natural hazards. Its geographical location makes it susceptible to the whole slew of typhoons, storm surges, floods, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis, landslides and droughts.
Of the annual average of 30 typhoons that occur in the north-western Pacific ocean, 20 visit the Philippines. Six died and thousands were evacuated when typhoon “Quedan” hit southern Luzon and some parts of the Visayas on 17 December 2005. With typhoons frequently come storm surges which are intensified by coinciding high tides, aggravated by our concave shoreline which prevents water from spreading laterally and made more destructive by the depredation of the mangroves, coral reefs, and other natural breakwaters that once protected us from the tides. They further bring heavy rains that cause flooding usually in Eastern Mindanao, Northern Samar, Central Luzon, Bicol region. Metro Manila, too, is experiences flooding because of its clogged esteros, siltation of the Pasig, and inadequate drainage system.
Not just water, also fire; in fact, we are on the Ring of Fire, that 40,000 km arc encircling the basin of the Pacific Ocean with 75% of the world’s volcanoes. More than 200 of those belong to us, and, besides the famous Pinatubo, the more familiar ones are Mayon, Taal, Hibok-Hibok, Bulusan, and Kanlaon.
Then there is fidgety land. We lie between two of the world’s major tectonic plates, the Pacific and the Eurasian plates. The Pacific plate is pushing the Philippine plate at the rate of about 7 cm a year; the oceanic parts of the Eurasian plate are being reduced along the western side of Luzon and Mindanao at the rate of 3 cm a year. Thus, earthquakes are not strangers to us.
We have tsunamis, too. Though not as headline-huggers as those that came from the Indian Ocean in the last days of December 2004, 27 tsunamis frequented our coastal towns, primarily in Mindanao facing the Celebes Sea in the period from 1603 to 1975.
From very wet, we go very dry. The 1989 drought damaged rice crops worth about Php 326 million growing over 31,587 hectares of rain-fed and irrigated lands.
How are we who either can not, or may not, or want not, to emigrate, be protected from the imbedded risks of living in our 7100 isles of tears and fears?
We can, of course, rely completely on government: it is in a perpetual state of getting ready. As the rains were falling in Leyte last week, the full cabinet of still President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was discussing how to be prepared. Last Friday, we heard Defense Secretary Nonong Cruz say that he was going to buy excavation equipment, obviously in preparation to dig up the dead and the living as soon as the bad weather subsides. We are assured by Anthony Golez, deputy administrator of the Office of Civil Defense, that “the government was preparing the biggest flood mitigation plan that should be completed within six months.” The Boy Scouts are “always prepared. The government is always preparing to prepare.
Do not think that money will not be there simply because the revenues collections of Finance Secretary Gary Teves fell short of target. Speaking of La Niña preparations, Budget Secretary Rolando Andaya assures us, “There is no need to worry, whatever weather we have in the summer, the DBM will be ready for that.” After all, there is National Treasurer Omar Cruz who will cover the revenue collection shortfall with income from the investments, some of which are from already allocated funds but not released by DBM.
Government, you can thus completely trust, to prepare. However, if you do not want to be an idiot, what else can you do?
I suggest begin by knowing what specific risk or risks you are facing by living where you are. Know your enemy. For this information, visit the website of the Jesuit-run Manila Observatory which has been serving the Filipino people in the field of weather longer than the republic, strong or otherwise, in fact since 1865. At www.observatory.ph, you can consult the recently completed Risk Mapping of the country by provinces and see which natural hazards you are exposed to more than the others elsewhere. Further localization of the risks down to your barangay needs to be done; for now, you ought to consult your elders for that.
Then, look up the terms and conditions of your insurance policies. Determine whether the natural disasters you are most exposed to are covered. If so, calculate whether the amount that you expect to receive from the loss that could occur due to the specific risks you are vulnerable to is sufficient to enable you to get up and fight again. Most likely, you will need individualized help because I am willing to bet that you are not adequately covered. Do not hesitate to consult an insurance expert and don’t forget to pay him for his advice.
If you are an insomniac and are not able to sleep anyway, regardless of whether you hear good or bad news, then learn more about your insurers, the specific company that insures your property as well as the entire system of re-insurers that is expected to make sure your loss is compensated. Do not show surprise when you find out that the insurance industry, in the Philippines and in the Asean, is not ready to meet natural disasters.
Victoria B. Roman, chairperson of the Asean Insurance Council before the 5th Asean Insurance Congress held on 29 November 2005 in Cambodia, asked her audience: “Are we ready?”. Answering herself, she said, “Not yet.” The full text of her keynote address is published in full in the October-December 2005 issue of Insurance Philippines.
But do not be disheartened. Reynaldo De Dios, the oldest living icon of Philippine insurance today tells me that there is a live proposal from the private sector in the insurance industry for a foreign funded study that will pave the way for the establishment of a re-insurance pool of Philippine non-life insurers. Their hope is that eventually something like Turkey’s Catastrophe Insurance Pool can be established here. If only Secretary Teves could find time to give his endorsement so the project could move forward and get foreign institutions, like the Asian Development Bank to finance the study and thereafter for the World Bank to provide seed money.
Finally, rub elbows among those who are serious about getting the country able to respond to the occurrence of the big one. There is a conference that will be held on 23 March 2006 at the Rizal Ballroom of the Makati Shangri-la Hotel entitled “Third Philippine Non-Life Insurance Summit” To all appearances, that is worth your while, especially if you are responsible not only for your own but for the security of others also. You may contact the Summit Secretariat at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And when all else is done, pray.