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The Challenge of our Times

November 10, 2009

Her Excellency President
Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo,
Distinguished participants and guests,
Ladies and gentlemen,
The Climate Change Act of 2009
Three days ago, President Arroyo signed into law the Climate Change Act of 2009. On this, I wish to convey my grateful appreciation to the President for her immediate action on this landmark legislation.
Thank you, Mrs. President.
I feel a sense of relief and fulfilment now that the arduous process of legislation that I went through for the past two years — from authoring and filing the bill to its present enactment into law — is finally over.
However, I am fully aware that with our new climate change law, the greater challenge, especially to all gathered here today, to translate the law into concrete local actions and measurable gains for the people, particularly the poor and vulnerable, has just begun.
With the grim scenarios of climate change impacts on our people’s lives, our nation’s economy, our environment, and our children’s future, ensuring the successful implementation of the Climate Change Act is not only a legal requirement, but more so a moral imperative and a social responsibility.
The recent flood disaster was indeed a wake up call for all. It revealed to our nation and the community of nations how vulnerable our cities and communities are and how the magnitude and extent of the disaster could stretch the current capacities of the government to respond and recover from the losses.
The recent flood disaster also suggests that climate change is in our midst. With reference to the Fourth Assessment
Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, there is more than 66% likelihood that such extreme weather brought by Ondoy and Pepeng is due to climate change. Furthermore, the report forewarns us that worse scenarios are bound to happen in the future with more than 90 percent certainty.
More recent international studies have further shown that the Philippines is a hotspot for climate change impacts:
The Mortality Risk Index (MRI) of the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) ranked our country 12th among the 200 countries most at risk from tropical cyclones, floods, earthquakes and landslides.
In a January 2009 study funded by Canada and Sweden, the Philippines ranked highest among Asean countries as a hotspot for cyclones, landslides, floods, and droughts, while the National Capital Region ranked 7th most vulnerable city in the Asean region.
Disasters have been a fact of life for Filipinos. Their impacts linger for years, imperil our development gains, and make our sustainable human development goals even more elusive.
But — How much of the costly humanitarian responses can we afford in the future? How many more precious lives will be lost before we act decisively to prevent them? And, how much fleeting time is left for us to stop the next disaster from happening?
As a nation at risk, we must realize the fact that we ourselves shape the disaster risks in our midst — by the way we change our environment and by the way we choose to live in it. Our actions and inactions define our vulnerabilities to disaster and climate change impacts.
As leaders, we need to rethink our approach to pursuing and protecting our development from the regressive impacts of disasters and climate risks. We need to revisit our current frameworks and strategies for socio-economic evelopment, for our development approaches and practices in the past decades have spawned the disaster risks which prevail today.
The Global Assessment Report
The Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction of the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction launched by UN Secretray General Ban Ki-Moon last May in Bahrain has found with empirical evidence what drive disaster risks and what make us even more vulnerable in the face of climate change.
There are three: First is poor urban governance. Second is vulnerable rural livelihood. And third is ecosystems decline.
These three are the so called deadly trio, which are made even deadlier by climate change.
The Report conveys that dealing with climate change and disaster risks more decisivelyand more effectively is the key to reducing poverty and achieving the Millennium Development Goals.
The Report therefore calls for improving urban governance – which involves stopping corruption and enforcing building codes; enhancing rural livelihoods – which involves enhancing agricultural productivity and supporting farmers better; and protecting ecosystems – which involves protecting our forests, cleaning our rivers, and stopping pollution.
Excellency, ladies and gentlemen, allow me to elaborate on these three recommendations of the Report:
Urban Governance
For example, in Japan, approximately 22.5 million people are exposed annually to typhoons, compared to 16 million people in the Philippines. However, the estimated annual death toll in the Philippines is almost 17 times greater than that of Japan. Overall, tropical cyclone mortality risk in low-income countries is approximately 200 times higher than in countries of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), for similar numbers exposed.
In the case of floods globally, from 1990 and 2007, the risk of death increased by 13% despite the finding that vulnerability declined because of better early warning systems, awareness and preparedness mechanisms.
What offsets the improvements in vulnerability was the drastic increase in exposure – the number of people exposed to floods increased by 28% in this period, while exposed GDP increased by 98%. Therefore, people, houses, industries, and economies are being placed in high risk areas.
In the case of earthquakes, while global exposure is distributed across all income classes – rich, middle and lower income, and poor countries – almost 85% of mortality risk is concentrated in lower-middle income countries.
The message concerning governance is clear:
Economic development must be accompanied by the strengthening of governance capacities, such as the quality of institutions, transparency and accountability. Development cannot be focused only on economic gains without the accompanying responsibility of good governance. Development should not create risks for our people and our economy. And we must ensure the resilience of our development investments.
Moreover, although we tend to focus on the big disasters – the super typhoons and disastrous floods and landslides — such as Ondoy and Pepeng; Typhoon Frank in 2008 that killed 98 people; Super Typhoon Durian in 2006 that caused volcanic mudflows that buried eight villages, displaced thousands of families, and killed hundreds of people in Albay; and the Guinsaugon, Leyte landslide tragedy in 2006, which killed more than a thousand people, the Report also highlighted that it is the smaller disasters – the ones that kill less than 10 people and destroy less than 10 houses – which we should be especially wary about. These smaller and localized disasters are on the rise – turbocharged by climate change.
As a whole, they effectively diminish our capital, especially for the poor – human, economic, social and environmental capital – making us less resilient and unable to resist disasters and any crisis that a typical household may face, be it disease, loss of jobs or livelihoods.
Rural Livelihoods
On livelihood vulnerability, approximately 75% of the people living below the international poverty line (US$ 1.25 per day) live and work in rural areas.
Rural poverty is associated with unequal land distribution, a lack of access to improved seeds, irrigation technology and other inputs, the lack of economic diversification, weak markets and trade barriers.
Poor rural livelihoods, dependent on rain-fed agriculture and on a single main harvest for annual food and income, are highly vulnerable to weather fluctuations and hazards, which can lead to crop or livestock loss. Poor and indebted households have little or no surplus capacity to absorb these losses and to recover.
The Philippines is periodically affected by the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) phenomenon that induces prolonged wet and dry seasons. The most severe ones are those that happened in 1982-1983, 1992-1993 and 1997-1998 El Niño that resulted to a GDP contraction and a dramatic drop in agricultural production among other factors[1]. From 1990 to 2003, the damage due to ENSO-related drought was estimated to be more than US$ 370 million. As a result of the massive loss in agricultural production in the 1980s, several measures are being implemented to minimize its effects. A key to this is an early warning and forecasting system, which allows government agencies to mobilize resources and farmers to plan ahead.
For example, in the case of rice shortage in 2008, the Philippines imported about 2.7 million metric tons of rice, posting the biggest rice import orders in history. Over the past ten years, the Philippines has been importing more than one million metric tons of rice a year. Climate change, and resulting extreme events will further upset our agriculture production schedules and exacerbate the problem of food security.
Concerning ecosystems, the Millennium Ecosystem Report, released in 2005, found that 60% of ecosystem services – services that nature provides to sustain human life, are declining with some services like fisheries beyond repair.
The Global Assessment Report found that in addition to this general decline, we are also creating trade-offs between ecosystem services – mangroves have been destroyed to create shrimp ponds thereby increasing storm surge hazard, wetlands have been drained thereby increasing flood hazard, and deforestation has increased landslide hazard.
Furthermore, vegetation regulates floods, erosion, and landslides. This regulation service is neither free nor unimportant and we should value them equally with the provisioning services such as timber and agriculture.
I note with deep concern the rapid deforestation in our land. Over the last century, the proportion of land area covered by forest in the Philippines has fallen from 22 percent in 1990 to just 19.4 percent in 2000. As recorded, large area of forestlands were already converted to tree plantation, mining and marginal upland agriculture
which gave a 1.4 per cent average deforestation rate from 1990 to 2000, the highest among Asian countries.
The Luntiang Pilipinas, an organization that I helped organize several years back, is the Philippine partner of the United Nations Environment Programme in its Billion Tree Campaign. It started out with very modest goals – to create oases of greens in open spaces and public areas. Today, it has planted and grown almost two million trees nationwide. The Luntiang Pilipinas markers are now a welcome presence on what used to be wide open spaces.
The IPCC Fourth Assessment Report has confirmed that weather-related hazard is being altered significantly by climate change. For example, compared with the period before 1985, there has been a significant increase in the number of strong Category 4 and Category 5 cyclones, particularly in years with warm sea surface temperatures.
Crucially, this combination of increasing hazard and decreasing resilience means that climate change not only magnifies disaster risk but it also magnifies the highly uneven distribution of risk: skewing disaster impacts even further towards poor communities in developing countries.
For example, the recent report by the Asian Development Bank on the economics of climate change found that if we are to do nothing, climate related risks will create a 6% decline of the Philippines GDP annually by 2100.
The same study found that if our country would invest 0.5% of our GDP by 2020 in climate change adaptation, we can avert losses of up to 4% of our GDP by 2100 — clearly a short term investment with a long term eight-fold gain.
Climate change cannot also be blamed — for flood prone informal settlements with non-existent or inadequate drainage, or for the decline of flood regulation due to the drainage of wetlands, or for rural households in drought prone areas that lack access to irrigation technology. It is impossible to adapt development that is not there. Adaptation, therefore, also means addressing the underlying risk drivers.
The message of our time is clear. Our development approaches and practices in the past decades have allowed disaster risks to grow, to spread, and to pervade until today. And the impacts of disasters have become both a cause and a consequence of poverty in developing countries. Given the urgency posed by climate change, decisive action needs to be taken now.
Now is the time — to revisit and rethink conventional frameworks and strategies for socio-economic development — to further develop our society without compromising the welfare of generations to come, to advance our socio-economic standards without putting the poor at greater risk, and to realize our goals on poverty reduction and sustainable development for the millennium with greater certainty of success.
Now is the time — to address the prevalence of poor urban governance, the continuing decline of our ecosystems, and the vulnerability of our rural livelihoods, the foremost drivers of disaster risk.
Now is the time — to make disaster risk reduction a primary strategy for sustainable and equitable socio-economic development and to promote the linkages and synergy between disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation.
For reducing disaster risk reduces as well poverty, safeguards development, and helps us adapt to climate change with benefits for global security, stability and sustainability.
Now is the time — to speed up the mainstreaming of disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation into development policy formulation, planning and decision making and the building of local governments’ capacity for this work.
Now is the time — for all of us to unite on all these issues, and to transcend territorial boundaries, political persuasions and institutional affiliations. There is no more appropriate time to show political will, good governance, and exemplary leadership than now.
Thank you and mabuhay.