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26 Dec Tsunami: A Wake up call for disaster preparedness

(Article published in the Jan 7,2005 issue of TODAY, Business Section)

The December 26 tsunami that mercifully spared the Philippines but wrought unprecedented damage to the coastal areas around the Bay of Bengal ought to be for us a clarion call, loud and clear, to do some serious rethinking about how way we try to cope with disasters that come our way. 

Undoubtedly, the Philippines is one of the most hazard-prone countries of the world.  Three major interrelated hazards stalk us all the time: (a) violent shaking from the earth; (b) raging fire from the mountains, and (c) rampaging water from the sky.

Because our archipelago is the continuing result of the collision of the Philippine Sea, Pacific and Eurasian plates, as well as of the smaller Sulu and Celebes Sea platelets which are being forced northwards by the big India-Australia plate, we record an  average of 887 earthquakes every year.  Many are imperceptible; but others are unlikely to be forgotten.  Of recent, and surely long recalled, memory is the earthquake in 1990 in Central Luzon that killed over 1,000 people.  As well as the 1976 shaker in Mindanao that claimed 6,000 lives.

Our landscape is peppered by volcanoes, as we hold the dubious distinction of being in the “ring of fire.”  Out of the 220 volcanoes in our country, 22 are considered active, the more active ones being Pinatubo, Taal, Mayon, Canlaon and Ragang.  The Pinatubo eruption in June of 1991 demonstrated how mighty is a volcano’s fury, strong enough to change the nearby face of the earth and wreck the lives and livelihood in areas far and wide and for many many years after the last rock had flown out of its belly.

In addition to earth and fire, we constantly face the threat of water, pouring out from above in the form tropical cyclones that  visit us regularly at the yearly average of 20,  from June to November, and, more recently, from May to December. From below, comes the danger of Intermittent floods due to rain-bearing monsoons coming from the southwest from May to October and from the northeast from November to February.

The impact of these disasters is staggering.  From 1970 to 2000, the country suffered an average  direct damage of Php 15 billion every year.  In a particularly bad year, 1991, losses amounted to Php 65 billion.  More significant than economic losses are the lives lost: 886 annual average from 1970 to 2000; in 1991, 6,121 died from natural calamities. 

Of the fatalities, an overwhelming number come from the poor.  Observed UN Secretary General KofÏ Anan nearly five years ago: “It is no accident that 90% of disasters world-wide are in developing countries.  Poverty and population pressures are forcing a great number of poor people to live in harm’s way—flood plains, earthquake prone zones and unstable slopes and hills.  Their extraordinary vulnerability is perhaps the single most important cause of disaster calamities.”

What do we have and what are we doing, as disaster continues to be our constant companion? As legal basis for our current disaster management arrangements, we have the 26-year old P.D. No. 1566 that set up the National Disaster Coordinating Council (“NDCC”).  It is easy to see how the law can be outdated.  But, do you know that, the NDCC does not even have a regular budget?

 As monetary support to cope up with the damage, we have the National Calamity Fund at supplements the Local Calamity Funds.  But these funds meet only a minuscule portion of relief and rehabilitation costs.  To illustrate: from 1996 to 2000, total disaster-related damage amounted to Php 49.2 billion.  But, expenditures for relief and rehabilitation amounted to only 7.5 billion, barely more than 15% of the requirement.

And more dangerously, we take a short term, ad hoc, and primarily  reactive posture towards disasters.  We spring into action, at the earliest, only when disaster is already at hand.  In most cases, what we do is limited to relief and rehabilitation.

To break out from the choke of the foregoing binds, we need to think anew and construct a national framework for comprehensive disaster risk management that is modern, well-funded, and proactive. To do this, there is no need to re-invent the wheel. Recently, the World Bank and NDCC came out with a report, from which most of the material above were culled, that not only analyzes but, more important, sets out a road map on how the country could move forward.

The report, with the long title “Natural Disaster Risk Management in the Philippines: Enhancing Poverty Alleviation Through Disaster Reduction” recommends, identifying the various risks, by making hazard and vulnerability maps for major natural hazards, improving the capacity for damage and needs assessment, and integrating environmental disaster into the risk management framework.

With the risks identified, the Report recommends that attention be focused on risk reduction.   Give more attention to proactive risk management than to disaster reaction and relief.  Emphasize initiative and responsibility from below rather than centralize the action at the top.  Consolidate the elements of the disaster management system and  insist on cooperation, not competition, among various actors. 

Finally the Report advocates the principle that the risk of national disasters must be equitably shared and efficiently financed.  Instead of the Government and the households affected always bearing most of the costs of natural disasters, more equitable arrangements should be put in place.  Among these are the grant of incentives for proactive risk management at the local levels, the creation of a national catastrophe insurance pool, and the organization of a system of contingent credit facilities than victims may avail themselves of to recover quickly from the damage.

We were lucky the killer waves were unable to reach our shores last December. But we cannot rest on the hope of being lucky again the next time around. Like the protective land mass that shielded us from the year-end tsunami, we need a critical mass of planning and acting as well as of financing and constructing to save our blessed isles from nature’s mindless fury and man’s heartless greed.