Five Steps to Prevent Disasters and Save Lives

December 5, 2013

Twenty-five typhoons have already visited the country this year, with the strongest, Typhoon Yolanda, revealing the gravity of disaster risk that Philippine communities are facing.


Senator Loren Legarda, Chair of the Senate Committees on Climate Change and Environment and Natural Resources, said that Yolanda is the new benchmark for disaster prevention and preparedness, stressing that “like all natural hazards, Yolanda was inevitable but its disastrous effects could have been prevented or mitigated if we were more prepared.”


As UN Champion for Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change Adaptation for Asia-Pacific, Legarda shares wise pointers on making communities resilient, drawn in five steps to save lives and prevent massive destruction of property.


1. Manage risks rather than manage disasters


In the lingo of disaster reduction experts, this is simply called “risk governance.” Local government units (LGUs) must determine if certain risks are prevalent in a community making it vulnerable to the effects of a landslide, flooding, tsunami, storm surge or earthquake.


Local disaster risk reduction (DRR) and climate change adaptation (CCA) plans must be crafted to address these threats and funds should be sufficiently allocated to effectively carry out these plans.


The World Bank estimates that for every dollar invested in disaster reduction measures saves seven to ten dollars in losses from natural disasters.


A good example is Barangay Cunsad in the Municipality of Alimodian, Province of Iloilo. In July 2012, when the heavy rains of Typhoon Gener triggered major landslides in Cunsad, they recorded zero casualty. This is because, when the natural signs of impending landslide showed up in the populated barangay of Cunsad, the municipal government immediately sought the help of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources for risk assessment and heeded the advice of geologists to relocate the residents.


2. Make every Filipino ‘disaster-literate’


Sound policies and political will to implement do not complete the formula for effective disaster prevention because there needs to be cooperation from the public. Early and mandatory evacuation would be useless if the people do not understand the need for such efforts.


Raising public awareness should be made to resonate loudly and as far deep into the communities as possible. If some of our people do not yet see how the issues could affect them, still it is our responsibility to draw them in. The government can conduct training for building the resilience of families covered by the Conditional Cash Transfer Program, together with the DSWD and the League of Barangays.


During the onslaught of Typhoon Yolanda, all 500 houses in the island of Tulang Diyot (Municipality of San Francisco, Cebu Province) were destroyed but the entire population was saved because of prompt evacuation led by former Mayor of San Francisco, Cebu Province, Alfredo Arquillano, a UNISDR Champion. Arquillano said that “when it was clear how bad the typhoon would be, we decided to evacuate all 1,000 people. Because we’ve done so much work on disaster risk everyone fully understood the need to move to safety.”


3. Let the science work for you


Adequately preparing for a disaster means knowing it fully well and the dangers it brings. Having experts gather and validate scientific data allows the accurate prediction of events, which could then be matched with the best practical solutions. When and where a typhoon will strike, and how, are critical knowledge that will allow the community to timely seek safer ground and fully protect their homes and properties.


With high reliability of disaster data, it is expected that the private sector will be more confident to enter into risk financing schemes without fear of massive losses.


4. Protect the environment


Building on good risk reduction practices means going back to the very basics: protecting our ecosystems and natural buffers such as mangrove forests to mitigate floods, storm surges and other hazards.


Our environment and its ecosystem support human life and provide the basic materials for our economy, such as food, fuel and clean water. The ecosystem also sequesters carbon emissions, regulates erosion and landslides, and reduces floods.


In Montalban, Rizal, a group of women farmers started to practice agroforestry to adapt to the prolonged wet season; while in Hinatuan, Surigao del Sur, a group of women fisherfolk reforested over a hundred hectares of mangrove areas to protect their settlements from storm surges and secure additional source of food for their families.


5.  Preparation is half the battle won


While disaster prevention should be the greater focus of our efforts, response preparedness is likewise important to prevent further casualties.


Contingency plans are crucial in times of disasters. Communities must draw and test regularly their response plan way ahead of any disaster event and improve constantly on early warning systems and emergency management capacities.


LGUs must have the political will to implement forced evacuation when called for.  Shelters for evacuees should be well designed, built strong, and prepared ahead of time with emergency supplies of food, water, medicine, shelter, and toiletries, while government agencies are ready to augment the basic needs of evacuees.


Local disaster and risk reduction management officers should be alert. Quick communication, particularly real-time updates, is also vital in ensuring effective disaster response with first responders and search and rescue teams ready for dispatch anytime.


A good example is the Purok System in the Municipality of San Francisco, Camotes Island, Cebu Province, which won the 2011 UN Sasakawa Award for Disaster Reduction. The Purok System allows the immediate self-organization within villages and focuses on addressing the vulnerability of every barangay in the municipality by mobilizing local resources in creating local and practical solutions based on the unique needs of every community.


For Legarda, these five steps are achievable with smooth coordination among agencies of government, all sectors of society, and the citizens.


“The key is to work together, as one community, as one nation. We must rebuild communities aware of the lessons of Yolanda, Sendong, Pablo, the Bohol quake and all other major disasters that have brought us to our feet. We must not rebuild the risks. We must rebuild stronger, wiser and smarter,” said Legarda.