Prometheus Bound: Top 7 ways to reduce disaster risk

By Giovanni Tapang, PhD

At the end of each year, we usually take stock of what transpired and assess our strengths and weaknesses in order to do better next year. Usually in the form of “New Year’s Resolutions,” we list down what we have to do for the next 365 days. In the light of the recent disasters in Mindanao, we list here the top 7 things we can do to address climate vulnerability in our country.

1. Improve our disaster response plans. In a country that is hit by around six to nine tropical cyclones each year plus around 12 more not making landfall, we seem to be always caught unprepared each time a typhoon arrives.

Typhoon Sendong is not the first time the Aquino government was caught flatfooted in its response to disasters. We recall typhoon Basyang (Conson) in 2010 and how Prisco Nilo and PAGASA became scapegoats for the inability of the National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC) and the Aquino government to respond correctly to the typhoon’s “divergence” from forecasted paths. Basyang should have been a lesson for us that in preparing for a typhoon, it is not just a matter of alerting one region but also ramping up the disaster readiness for the adjoining regions and cities as well. Ondoy, Pepeng, Pedring and Quiel should have been enough reminder for the government to be worried every time a typhoon comes.

We should have constant typhoon drills (ala fire drills), pre-positioned relief goods, well-planned (and practiced) evacuation plans and community-based disaster risk assessments. There should also be clear and direct lines of responsibilities between the national and local disaster agencies.

2. Have proactive warning systems. We should take advantage of technology, both advanced and local, in warning our communities with the risks associated with an incoming hazard. Doppler radars, satellite information, SMS based technologies and other advanced tools will surely help but one cannot also ignore commonplace routes for warning dissemination such as Church bells, bullhorns and mobile teams that will go around communities. Public storm warnings should also include rainfall information.

3. Institute a nationwide emergency response system. We can emulate Cuba in its storm preparations. Cuba informs everyone 72 hours before landfall of the impending storm. Their National Civil Defense (DCN) organizes hurricane preparation efforts 48 hours before landfall. This includes sending home students from school and inspecting shelters and supplies. Evacuation are also done as early as this time. During landfall, media coverage continues and the DCN ensures attention and lines of communication. Afterwards, post-hurricane operations are instituted once such as rescue operations and inspection to certify that people can return back to their homes.

4. Cancel the permits and operations of big commercial logging firms in addition to the logging moratorium. Remove exemptions of mining companies from the log ban and reduce corruption in logging concessions.

Forest cover in the Philippines is already down to an estimated 6 percent of our original and around 160,000 hectares are lost to deforestation per year. The logs that were swept by the flash floods towards the basin drainages in Cagayan de Oro is a testament that the logging ban will not be that effective until the legalized logging operations of big commercial firms are stopped. Exemptions for mining companies would only aggravate the situation.

5. Stop the liberalization of the Philippine mining industry. According to the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB), around nine million hectares of our total land area are geologically prospective for metallic minerals. While the Aquino administration rejected 903 pending mining applications, it favorably endorsed 247 foreign-backed applications for processing. Mining activities increase the vulnerabilities of an area not only to landslides but also to mining related incidents.

6. Impose a moratorium on the construction of new coal power plants. As PAGASA warns us that our wet days would become wetter as dry days would become drier, President Aquino is allowing more coal-fired power plants to operate and even inaugurated some of them during his term. Coal plants are one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases that contributes to global warming.

7. Reduce poverty. One of the most important determinants of vulnerability to disasters is poverty. An urban poor dweller or a peasant would lose everything once their small house gets swept by raging waters compared to one with a large stone house in a plush subdivision. The presence of available jobs and, of course, living wages are also critical. In rural areas, land to till and agricultural support can bring families right back on their feet after disaster strikes.

Without these in-place, the plight of our countrymen hit by typhoons, earthquakes and other disasters would always be at the mercy of donations and relief operations. It is high time to address the roots of our people’s vulnerability and face 2012 with a disaster resilient plan.###

Dr. Tapang is the chairperson of Samahang ng Nagtataguyod ng Agham at Teknolohiya para sa Sambayanan and convenor of Kalikasan.

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