For a Call From Manila

February 26, 2015

Nicolas Hulot, French President François Hollande’s Special Envoy for the Protection of the Planet

Loren Legarda, Chair of the Philippine Senate Committees on Climate Change, Environment and Natural Resources

Published in the Huffington Post

In the Philippines as elsewhere around the world, climate change is driving risk and multiplying the impact of all the other drivers of risk such as poverty, population growth, poor urban planning and eco-system decline.

If good intentions were enough, then the Philippines would be a world leader in building resilience to disasters. The country has some of the best legislation and policy frameworks on climate change and disaster risk management. It also has strong institutions in the National Council for Disaster Risk Reduction and Management and PAGASA’s weather and climate services.

Unfortunately, that’s not enough in the face of shifting and unpredictable typhoon seasons which can produce super storms like Typhoon Haiyan. It was the strongest storm ever to make landfall, claiming nearly 8000 lives, affecting more than 16 million people, and causing irreparable damage to livelihoods and economic growth. Haiyan, which resulted in US$ 13 billion in damages, was also one of the top two most damaging disasters in 2013, along with the floods in Germany in May-June that caused US$ 12.9 billion worth of economic damages.

Even a lesser event like Tropical Storm Sendong which arrived in the middle of the night in December 2011, killed some 1,500 people who were trapped in their homes and shacks vulnerable to floods and landslides on the southern island of Mindanao.

Ten years ago, the Philippines adopted the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA), the first comprehensive agreement on Disaster Risk Reduction and since then the country has been hit by 181 major reported disasters of all types from typhoons to earthquakes to volcanic eruptions.

Only the USA and China have suffered more hazard events. Economic losses in the US are in the region of $443 billion compared to $16 billion in the Philippines for that decade. The absolute losses are many times greater in economic superpowers, but so is their economic resilience. The impact of an event like Typhoon Haiyan on the GDP of the Philippines is far more significant and long-lasting than the impact of Superstorm Sandy or the recent winter storms on the US economy. Poverty compounds the worst impacts of disasters.

Developing countries experience higher risks than developed countries in terms of impact on human life. The Philippines, for example, has suffered three times as many fatalities in the last ten years compared to the preceding decade, while the death toll in the US has remained relatively static over the same period.

When Presidents Francois Hollande and Benigno Aquino meet in Manila today, it is a meeting of great significance. It brings together representatives of countries that contribute the most to climate change and countries that contribute the least. These countries come together in a spirit of shared concern and shared commitment to address climate change and the risks that come with it.

France is a country that lost 15,000 of its citizens in an unprecedented heatwave during the summer of 2003, but it has the resources to more effectively manage the risks and to minimize the death toll from future disasters.

The Philippines, year after year, is confronted with an even more quixotic feature of climate change given the impacts that rising sea levels and warming oceans can have on the behavior of the typhoon season. Even then, when Typhoon Hagupit threatened the same swathe of territory as Haiyan some months ago, the Philippines also showed that it could rise to the occasion by undertaking pre-emptive evacuations, thus saving many lives.

Indeed, lessons have been learned as the country has gone beyond early warnings to early action. The “wait-and-see attitude,” which proved fatal in the face of Haiyan, is hopefully, now, a thing of the past.

What these events reveal is that disaster risk is a social construct. If the built environment is not capable of withstanding the hazards to which it is exposed then people are rendered especially vulnerable. The increasing vulnerability of people to natural hazard extremes really calls for a cultural revolution: a change in mindset and approaches to development.

The learnings of these last ten years must feed into the post-2015 development agenda starting with the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction next month in Sendai, Japan, which will adopt an updated version of the Hyogo Framework for Action.

This will contain many new elements including a focus on health and pandemic risk, and a greater role for the private sector in order to avoid creating new risk through poor investment strategies by, for example, ignoring issues around land use and building codes.

Sendai is the kick-off event for the post-2015 development agenda. A good outcome there can prepare the ground for a forward looking agreement on climate when the COP21 convenes in Paris later this year. President Hollande’s visit to the Philippines will have helped in that process.

It will be greatly significant that two countries from Asia and Europe, with very different conditions, speak with a common voice and call on governments and public opinion worldwide to fully mobilize to reach a universal, ambitious climate agreement in Paris this year. Such an appeal will have to be read as an urgent wake up call.

One thing is for sure: The Philippines and the rest of the world will have to continue up-skilling on disaster risk management for many years to come. Climate change is happening but risk change has already happened, and we have to understand and manage it.