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Planning for disasters and risk reduction

18 January 2012

The morning after the typhoon passed through Cagayan de Oro City, northern Mindanao, Philippines. Photo Credits: Pedro Walpole

The sun shines brightly for the Philippines in the New Year, but not without occasional killer rains.  Over 60,000 people are recovering their lives from the damage of Typhoon Sendong (international Washi).  We are recovering from the awareness not taking root in action to reduce the risk.  We are faced with the question of what we must do in 2012 for our neighbor and for the environment.

There are many legal and procedural adjustments needed, but we are primarily faced with the moral responsibility of preparing for disasters by reducing the risk to life.

The biggest challenge behind this is our cultural capacity.  We have the science, the specifics of geographic location, the institutions of government, but as with the current spate of disaster, it is evidently clear we do not have the technical capacity and the comprehensive governance coordination at the right levels across the country.

If we are to look at Asia for the decade ahead, the same problems face all countries.  Given primarily the extreme climate events, let us not discuss climate change that are literally liquefying our landscapes through landslides and flooding and putting millions of people in harm’s way.  We also have the impact of drought that may not result in the immediate death of thousands of people warranting media attention, but millions of people in the region will be affected by loss of crops and access to safe water.

In a recent commentary that was published in a national broadsheet in the Philippines in the aftermath of the disaster that struck northern Mindanao last month, we communicated the urgent need to respond strategically with a set of demands for Philippine society and government to collectively act on.  While the demands as expressed may not be new and may even sound repetitive for some, we are still unnecessarily losing lives and experiencing large-scale disastrous impact because these actions are not taken in time.

Acknowledging that work for the common good is within our social and democratic ambit, it is also a fact that we do not flex enough our capacity to implement the needed changes in our society. These strategic demands for major risk reduction include:

Emergency preparedness.  An implemented warning system for every typhoon in every area of potential risk; a day or night evacuation strategy that carefully lays out the location, paths, and methods to reach safe areas for evacuation and temporary settlement.

Relocation and land allocation.  A critical review and implementation of land allocation and securing access to assist city and local governments in identifying safe lands for settlements and the procedures for acquisition; a prioritized relocation plan for every city and barangay that sets accomplishments and should not be simply mitigation activities, as in developing and re-building infrastructure that will not withstand the next disaster; and a sustainable relocation that considers people’s livelihood accessibility in ways that livelihood is sustained and risks are minimized.

Landscape and waterscape planning and development.  An open transparent planning process for infrastructure development with broad participation of key people, especially in critical areas of riverbanks, slopes, and flood plains.

Floodplain management. Developing a floodplain management program and regulations to re-establish natural flood areas and that strictly enforces restrictions and controls in the: alteration of natural floodplains, stream channels, and natural protective barriers that channel floodwaters; developments that increase flood damage; and construction of flood barriers that unnaturally divert floodwaters and increase flood hazards in other areas.

In a related activity, Dean Antonio LaViña of the Ateneo School of Government and who is from Cagayan de Oro City, one of the major cities that was struck by Typhoon Sendong,  shared 10 tasks we need to undertake and focus attention on if we are to respond meaningfully and effectively to future “Sendongs” or Washis.”  He shared his reflections during a meeting of superiors and directors of work in the Philippine Province of the Society of Jesus held 3 to 5 January 2012.  These tasks are:

1.      How to wind down relief

2.      Resettlement

3.      Helping the middle class

4.      Accountability

5.      Communication of the science

6.      Disaster risk analysis, reduction and preparedness (short-term)

7.      Climate change adaptation (long-term)

8.      Land use is key

9.      Enforcement of environmental laws: mining and real estate development is a big question

10.  Addressing long-term climate change

The Philippine Province of the Society of Jesus also identified the coordination of environmental work undertaken by its institutions as one of three initiatives for the next two years that will implement the Province’s goals in reconciling with creation.

A recent collaborative effort between the Environmental Science for Social Change (ESSC), a Jesuit research organization in the Philippines, and the government’s Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB), was undertaken this month to upload the entire set of the country’s geohazard maps in ESSC’s website for broader public access.  This will be accompanied by area recommendations undertaken by MGB that will guide local government planning and action especially for areas vulnerable to landslides and flooding.

The Bishops’-Businessmen’s Conference for Human Development is exploring a renewed national dialogue on human development and the role of mining in Philippine society.  Mining is a contentious concern in the country, with polarized sectors that are either for or against mining.  Mineral development is an important sector in the country’s economic development land, but unregulated and mismanaged operations in the past remain for the most part unresolved, both socially and environmentally.  Small-scale mining in gold rush areas do not have the safety requirements and are taking a disastrous toll on people’s lives through landslides and cave-ins.  Ateneo de Davao University is launching an international conference on mining this month.

We need a society that can value life and change its systems of relations and responsibilities to meet new basic needs.   Transformative learning has to become a new adult literacy that moves to action beyond bayanihan, expanding this Filipino and Asian value and infusing an informed pro-activeness that changes our landscape for the good of all.  This includes serious planning for a sustainable future that integrates the knowledge of the disaster potential and local realities.

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