Taking action now

Marvin A. Tort

Posted on August 08, 2012

TYPHOONS ONDOY and Pepeng hit the country in September and October 2009 and devastated particularly Luzon and Metro Manila. Then Sendong came in December 2011, hitting hard the Visayas and Mindanao. Between these disasters, the government changed hands as the Aquino Administration took over from the Arroyo Administration in July 2010.

Nearly three years had passed since the destructive onslaught of Ondoy and Pepeng. This generation in particular had not seen a more destructive calamity in Metro Manila. And while Sendong had spared the metropolis in 2011, it was nearly a year ago that much of Central Visayas and Northern Mindanao had suffered massive destruction and death due to floods.

Today, the nation’s capital is again under siege as monsoon rains perpetuate. Destructive flooding has seemingly become more regular and even widespread. Schools and businesses, including government agencies, shut down more frequently and more roads have become impassable. Even heavy rains, and not necessarily storms, are now enough to still regions.

Ondoy and Pepeng already allowed the country the benefit of hindsight. And yet, the nation was still practically unprepared when typhoons in 2011 came and went. Sendong gave planners a second chance, the opportunity for redemption, but it doesn’t seem like lessons have been learned. Now, the monsoon rains of 2012, much like in 2011, wreak havoc, resulting in much damage and considerable loss.

Admittedly, three years (since Ondoy and Pepeng) is a short time for effective urban planning and renewal and disaster risk mitigation, more so if one fails to take appropriate remedial action after every wet season. Budget limitations are also among the realities, including the unpredictability of nature.

But historically, wet weather in the Philippines comes and lasts at least six months a year, as sure as the sun rises and sets, and night comes after day. People don’t need PAGASA to know that the rains will come. It is just a matter of when and how much. Even with El Niño or prolonged drought, the rains -- even typhoons -- still occur.

Meantime, what has been done to mitigate if not reduce for the long term the risks and the damage resulting from torrential rains and flooding? More rubber boats have been purchased? River and creeks have been dredged? Major waterways out to sea have been cleared? Rain gauges were put in place, and weather alerts have become more frequent?

What about local drainage systems? Have they been substantially cleared of debris that went with floodwaters of Ondoy and Pepeng? Or such debris remained embedded in most storm drains in the metropolis, effectively limiting if not restricting the flow of storm water?

Makati City, for one, has made an effort to start rehabilitating storm drains in a number of areas, but this may be for naught unless the entire metropolis network is similarly rehabilitated.

It seems that nowadays, it takes a shorter time and a smaller amount of rainfall to cause widespread and paralyzing flooding in Metro Manila. And judging by the amount of garbage seen floating in Manila Bay to date, clearing efforts appear to have had minimal upside. Asu such, as sure as the rains come during the wet season, flooding comes next. No ifs, not buts.

In late 2009, a Special National Public Reconstruction Commission was created at the aftermath of typhoons Ondoy and Pepeng. One of the major outputs of that commission was a Post-Disaster Needs Assessment (PDNA) put together by experts from the private sector, civil society organizations, and multilateral development partners and bilateral development partners.

The PDNA assessed the damage and losses brought about by the typhoons as well as their economic and social impacts. It covered 13 key sectors of the economy as well as cross-sector issues relating to local government, social protection, finance, and disaster risk management and reduction.

To aid the recovery planning process, initial information was provided in the report regarding Overall Damage, Losses, and Needs Estimates; Damage, Losses and Needs by Sector; Recovery and Reconstruction Strategy and Program; Monitoring and Oversight Arrangements; and, Institutional Framework for Disaster Risk Management and Needs Assessment, among others.

Several areas were mentioned in the report as meriting particular attention: Rural Production, to avoid loss of production during the dry season; Housing, with the aim of building back better to provide better alternatives particularly for informal settlers; Disaster Risk Reduction, with local planning needs to be significantly expanded and critical service infrastructure (e.g., water, power, hospitals) upgraded to withstand an acceptable level of risk; Disaster Risk Financing, with contingency financing deemed as the most appropriate to manage moderate risks; Local Governance, with financial and technical assistance prioritized according to disaster susceptibility; and Flood Management, with protecting disaster areas requiring institutional changes, comprehensive planning, and investment in both restoration and new infrastructure.

As noted by the report, the policy choice is to determine the acceptable level of risk and protection, as this will determine subsequent engineering and financing decisions. And in the medium term, flood management and drainage system should be restored to fully operational condition, accompanied by funding for regular maintenance and the establishment of real-time monitoring and early warning systems.

Sadly, the Special National Public Reconstruction Commission was abolished as the Aquino Administration took over in July 2010. And with its abolition, it seems many of its recommendations were set aside as well - despite all the effort exerted in developing them. Doubly sad is the impression that only a few actually took notice of the commission’s report.

Just last February, Senator Teofisto Guingona III again pushed for the approval of his bill that proposed the creation of a Solidarity Fund to serve as a common pool that could be tapped by local governments during disasters. The bill surely requires priority, but it didn’t even merit special mention during President Aquino’s recent State of the Nation Address.

The rains are back, and so is the flooding. Physical and social damage and deaths are mounting, and adverse impact on the economy will surely follow. Perhaps a new Post-Disaster Needs Assessment is in order. Or, maybe it is time for someone in this government to review the 2009 report and pick up from there. And pass the Guingona bill, for God’s sake.

Readers may send comments to matort@yahoo.com.