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Better disaster governance

/ 05:30 AM October 25, 2020

There is no doubt that COVID-19 remains a threat, but there is another hazard that Filipinos should pay attention to especially at this time of year — natural disasters, specifically typhoons and floods, that often cause the evacuation of hundreds of people to shelters. A recently released UN-backed report noted that, on average, per 100,000 population, Filipinos are among those that suffer the most from natural calamities. The Philippines also ranked fourth among the most disaster-affected countries globally over the past two decades.

The report, “Human Cost of Disasters,” funded by the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, said the Philippines reported 304 disasters from 2000 to 2019 — or an average of 16 disaster events a year. This is hardly any surprise, since the country’s geographical location in the Pacific, where it sits along the Ring of Fire, makes it vulnerable to typhoons (an average of 20 annually) and earthquakes.

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The report said most of the disasters that hit the Philippines were meteorological and hydrological in nature — meaning storms, floods, and landslides. These disasters displace millions of Filipinos every year, most of them ending up in evacuation centers. But with a deadly virus still lurking, having people crowd into shelters at this time could be catastrophic.

Late last year, according to the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC), almost 2 million people were affected by Typhoon “Tisoy,” with more than 46,000 of them ending up in 129 evacuation centers across seven regions. Just this month, Tropical Storm “Pepito” and Tropical Depression “Ofel” prompted the evacuation of 11,399 families or 51,953 individuals to 89 evacuation centers in Calabarzon, Cagayan, Central Luzon, Bicol, and Central Visayas. These evacuations happened at a time when people are required to maintain at least a one-meter distance to avoid getting infected by COVID-19.

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NDRRMC spokesperson Mark Timbal admitted that the coronavirus has indeed complicated the government’s disaster response. “Ang challenge po kasi dito, yung mismong nagmamando ng ating COVID response sa ground, sila din mismo ang responders natin for emergencies kagaya ng bagyo (The challenge is that the staff managing our COVID response on the ground are the same responders for emergencies such as storms),” he said in an interview with ABS-CBN’s Teleradyo last week.

LGUs need to ensure their disaster response teams are equipped with face masks, face shields, and if necessary, PPE, while at the same time making sure that evacuees observe physical distancing, he added.

This can be a real challenge in a crowded shelter, and one that had been seen during the Taal Volcano eruption in January and Typhoon “Ambo,” dubbed “Yolanda Jr.,” in May. As this paper reported in July, these two disasters displaced thousands of individuals amid a health crisis, “effectively making it impossible to implement social distancing, much less any form of self-quarantine, in a bid to curb the spread of the potentially deadly virus.”

Last May, the NDRRMC issued Memorandum No. 54, which outlines COVID-19 preparedness measures for the rainy season, and mandates LGUs to assess areas at risk of the coronavirus and to make evacuation plans accordingly. Timbal noted that adjustments in the capacity of evacuation centers have to be made to adhere to the minimum one-meter physical distance between individuals. This means, for example, that a classroom shelter that can previously accommodate 10 families can host only two to three families during the pandemic. LGUs need to identify alternative evacuation centers, and preventive evacuation should be conducted to avoid evacuees crowding into vehicles or shelters.

The UN report did acknowledge the complexity that COVID-19 poses to large-scale evacuations, noting that the pandemic “has laid bare many shortcomings in disaster risk management, not least in governance failures in response to repeated warnings.” It emphasized the need for an “all-of-society,” systemic, multihazard approach instead of merely reacting to disasters — an advice the Philippine government should heed. It can start by funding crucial research and development into scientifically sound solutions.

However, it has cut instead by P76 million the budget for the Department of Science and Technology next year, affecting 90 percent of research proposals. On the other hand, it has given P4.5 billion to the President’s intelligence fund, and wasted millions of taxpayer money on cosmetic projects, like the Manila Bay dolomite beach.

As the UN report concluded: “It is baffling that we willingly and knowingly continue to sow the seeds of our own destruction, despite the science and evidence that we are turning our only home into an uninhabitable hell for millions of people… It really is all about governance…”

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