Safer, more beautiful Philippines

By Benjamin E. Diokno

Posted on January 04, 2012

As the world economy slows and undergoes severe adjustment problems in the next three to five years, it may be an excellent opportunity for the Philippines to make up for lost ground.

Philippine public infrastructure lags many years behind its ASEAN-5 neighbors. And given the country’s high vulnerability to damaging natural disasters, the next five years may be an excellent opportunity for the country to enhance its disaster preparedness and to build a stronger, more beautiful country.

The Philippines is the most, if not one of the most, disaster-prone countries in the world. Last year, the Center for Research and Epidemiology Disasters (CRED), research unit based in Brussels disclosed that the Philippines ranked first worldwide in the most number of disasters that hit a country. Based on an annual statistical review compiled by the group, the Philippines led the list of natural disasters with 24, making the country the hardest hit in terms of calamities that pose a serious threat to life and limb. A poor second was China with 16 disaster events.

But as a people, Filipinos have short memories. Remember Ondoy and Pepeng. In addition to close to a thousand deaths, Ondoy and Pepeng combined was the costliest natural calamity in recent Philippine history. The combined cost of damage brought about by the twin typhoons reached P38 billion, of which P11 billion came from Ondoy and P27 billion from Pepeng.

Damage to infrastructure (roads and bridges, flood control structures, health facilities and schools) was estimated at P 11.1 billion. Damage to agriculture and fisheries were estimated at P23.6 billion as of November 5, 2009, Some 213,000 houses were destroyed.

Ondoy damaged a total of 1,382 schools mostly in the Calabarzon region (502), Central Luzon (357) and the National Capital Region (348). Pepeng destroyed 1,453 schools mostly in Northern Luzon (708), Bicol (289) and Cordillera Autonomous Region (230).

Summits of top leaders and donors were conducted. Plans and programs were prepared. But as the memories of the catastrophic events fade, concrete plans were abandoned and the reconstruction of damaged infrastructure was left with meager financing.

Metropolitan Manila today is as vulnerable to an Ondoy-like event as it was two years ago. Nothing has changed, except the faces of political leaders and top bureaucrats.

Now comes Sendong. Official death toll from it stands at 1,258 with many more still believed missing. It was the worse calamity to hit the country in terms of loss of human lives since the 1991 flooding and landslides in Ormoc where some 5,000 people died.

What happens next? After the blame game and the political grandstanding, will the Iligan-Cagayan de Oro disaster be forgotten too?

It doesn’t have to. Our political leaders and government bureaucrats, at all levels, are given the opportunity to do some good to its bosses (the Filipino masses). Once and for all, our leaders, regardless of political color, should do concrete measures to increase disaster preparedness and invest in massive relocation of people in risky areas wherever they are -- in urban slums or coastal villages, in landslide prone areas or by flood-prone waterways.

On the part of the national government, it may prepare a comprehensive land-use and relocation policy based on earlier simulation studies on the effects of extreme weather events from climate change such as saltwater intrusion, sea level rise and intense tropical cyclones on Philippine cities. There is no need to reinvent the wheels. Such studies exist.

Disaster-prone areas should be identified and prioritized. But the study should be done with a great sense of urgency. And the study should not end up in the library of a concerned government agency. It should form the basis of an action plan and a financing request to Congress for a supplemental budget for a five-year spending program to fortify, strengthen and make safer threatened areas all over the Philippine archipelago.

Evacuation centers should be built in key areas in the country. The economic and social costs of using school buildings as evacuation centers are just too high. Communities in risky places (say, along coastal areas and waterways) should be relocated to higher grounds.

Local authorities have a key roles in planning for disasters and in implementing measures during periods of calamities. The national government provides a grant (internal revenue allotment) of about P300 billion annually to local government units, with the restriction that 20% of the grant, or approximately P60 billion, be used for development purposes.

A big part of this P60 billion may be used for disaster preparedness. In addition, local government units have contingency funds for calamities. With the declaration of a state of calamity nationwide, these funds may then be freed for relief, rehabilitation and disaster preparedness. Hopefully, they are not frittered away on money-making expenditure items.

Local government funds may be used as counterpart for a central government-funded program for setting up of evacuation centers and relocation of people from risky places to safer grounds.

Disaster preparedness transcends politics. Political leaders, regardless of political persuasion, and at all levels, working together, persevering, for the common good could make a difference in the lives of the masses. That’s real change.