The State of Disaster and Climate Risks in the Philippines

August 13, 2012

Privilege Speech
The State of Disaster and Climate Risks in the Philippines
Senate Session Hall
August 13, 2012

A frontpage headline, ‘Sun rises on metropolis,’ was perhaps one of the most welcome headlines the country woke up to after the entire Metro Manila and nearby provinces were drenched and flooded by the heaviest monsoon rains in years. It exuded hope for the victims and a new beginning for all.

While divine providence brings us hope for a better tomorrow, we wake up again to our present day reality, to the state of disaster risks in the country: the lack of protection from natural hazards, weak urban planning, a growing urban poor, vulnerable rural livelihood, and a degraded ecosystem.

The persistence of this reality is the development challenge that we must all confront today squarely.

What even makes this challenge more daunting is the fact that climate change is making matters worse. The heavy and excessive rainfall we occasionally experience is part of what climate scientists call “the new norm.” This means we shall experience weather extremes that are more widespread and harder to predict more frequently.

It is very alarming that various statistics have identified the Philippines as among the world’s most vulnerable to natural hazards. The number of documented disasters from natural hazards in the country surged 50 per cent last year, making our nation the world’s most disaster-hit country in 2011.

The recent monsoon rains left 92 dead and more than half a million Filipinos displaced. Over 89,000 families remain in evacuation centers as a result of the recent disasters, adding to the 3,995 families, or so-called “climate refugees” still residing in temporary shelters seven months after typhoon Sendong.

Meanwhile, earthquake risk also prevails in Metro Manila. Of all the disasters that the capital has experienced throughout its history, earthquakes pose the greatest threat to life, property, and the economy. If a 7.2-magnitude earthquake will strike Metro Manila, as revealed in the 2004 Metro Manila Earthquake Impact Reduction Study, the whole nation will be greatly affected as the area is the country’s center of governmental, financial, commercial, and social activities.

Mr. President,

In the area of environmental protection, we are glad that the 2012 Environmental Performance Index (EPI) classified the Philippines as a global “strong performer” in environmental performance, jumping from 50th in 2010 to 42nd place in 2012 out of 132 countries. We have in fact outranked Australia (48th), the United States (49th), and Singapore (52nd).

Despite this gain, the challenge of faithfully implementing our environmental laws remains. Sixty-two per cent or 945 of 1,516 LGUs nationwide still use open and controlled dumps which R.A. 9003, the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act prohibits. This level of non-compliance with the law explains why our garbage problem persists and why our flooding woes seem to worsen every day.

Perhaps, LGUs can learn from the small town of San Francisco in Camotes Island, Cebu, which received the 2011 United Nations Sasakawa award for Disaster Risk Reduction for their “Purok System” that developed the discipline needed in proper waste management and disaster prevention. Residents implemented segregation at source, strictly enforcing their “no trash segregation-no collection” policy.

Another example is the third class municipality of Hinatuan in Surigao del Sur, whose townspeople worked together in cleaning clogged canals, their surroundings and seawater, as well as in regulating plastic use. Their waste management program was so effective that they won the 2010 Zero Basura Olympics.

Mr. President,

As a people, we have gone through many trials, and we know how resilient we can be. But heavy rains and other natural hazards need not lead to a disaster. Our common notion that disasters are an act of God must be changed. The fact is our complacency and disregard for nature shaped the disaster risks in our midst. We must take upon ourselves the responsibility to reduce our own vulnerability and build our resilience to natural hazards.

Now, after the widespread floods, this call for action becomes relevant and urgent.
We need to examine our weakness in governance: our poor implementation of our laws, our inaction in dredging rivers, the persistence of illegal logging, the conversion of watersheds into housing development, and the lack of a comprehensive flood prevention and mitigation plan.

Our laws are said to be the “best in the world” by the United Nations ISDR. The Climate Change Act of 2009 and Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act of 2010 were passed in order to empower national and local governments to comprehensively deal with disaster prevention, preparedness, response and recovery. The biggest challenge, however, is to build our LGUs’ capacity to implement these new laws, bearing in mind the preferential priority for proactive measures over those that are after-the-fact.

The nation’s capital needs a comprehensive recovery and rehabilitation plan that will reduce people’s vulnerability of all sectors to floods. Such plan could be developed and implemented together with key stakeholders and must not be abandoned like the recovery and rehabilitation efforts following Ondoy.

More importantly, we must assess our respective work in reducing flood risk, if we are really making any headway amid the ‘new norm’ we experience in this era of climate change. Are we working on preventing and mitigating the floods or merely responding to their onslaught? While disaster response preparedness is important, it is never enough for saving lives and reducing socio-economic losses substantially. This action is last of five priorities set by the Hyogo Framework for Action for disaster risk reduction.

Pursuant to our new laws, we must put greater emphasis and invest more on disaster prevention and mitigation and risk reduction measures over disaster response, which is costly and unsustainable. According to UN and World Bank studies, a dollar invested in prevention yields seven to fourteen dollars saved in response cost.

Mr. President,

Disaster impacts should be evaluated in public investment planning from national to local levels. It is imperative for the government to submit to the discipline of disaster and climate risk-sensitive development planning. Thus, the national government budget for 2013 must anticipate and can withstand the impacts and economic stress brought about by extreme weather events.

We must also encourage private companies to come up with their business continuity plans, so that businesses affected by disasters can resume operations in the least amount of time.

We also enjoin the media to actively assume their social roles as public conscience, development educator, and change driver as enhancing public awareness and knowledge is key to building a culture of safety and resilience.

Mr. President,

In every disaster there is a huge opportunity to change the mistakes we have made in the past and an opportunity to move ahead. This will require a new level of commitment and collaboration among government agencies, LGUs, the private sector, and civil society.

Let us start with concrete, doable actions: We must clean drainages, waterways and riverbanks; segregate garbage; plant and grow more trees on vacant lots and roadsides; set up rainwater catchment basins so water is stored during rains and used during dry season; update dam protocols; and relocate urban settlers living in vulnerable places to safe and livable areas.

The forces that threaten our people and the development of our country must be met with resolute will and sustainable solutions. Strong political will at national and local levels can help bring about the big change we want to see.

Thank you, Mr. President.