In The Crosshairs

by Juan L. Mercado

How far have we come from the 2004 tsunami that swamped Aceh in Indonesia to “Yolanda,” the supertyphoon that battered the Philippines in 2013? And what are the  lessons from a decade of disasters?

These questions anchor the May issue of Development Asia. “Building back better…  has gained traction,” asserts this Asian Development Bank publication. But this remains a “mystery to many residents who lack resources even to rebuild… (Many) are just looking to get back on their feet… even as the rhythms of normal life are reasserting themselves…”

People know they are “in the crosshairs” of more disaster. And “there is a growing awareness  that they must become more resilient to future shocks.”

Asia is more exposed to natural hazards than other regions. Between 1970 and 2010, half the global deaths from disasters were tallied here. More corpses, however, piled up in the poorer nations. Asia accounted for 40 percent of total economic disaster losses and they threaten to “outpace economic expansion.”

We cannot rebuild communities as before. President Aquino told Development Asia. We cannot. That would only ensure a rerun of the same results. Instead, the country must rebuild in a “resilient manner.”

Time, however, is in short supply. Climate change is ratcheting up Asia’s exposure in ways difficult to predict. Yolanda’s  storm surge might not have reached so far inland if sea levels had not already risen due to global warming. Until  Yolanda, Mindanao would be hit by storms, on average, every 17 years. That’s now past tense. “The greater danger may lie in the unpredictability of future disasters.”

The UN World Conference on Disaster Reduction urged governments to (a) prioritize disaster risk reduction, (b) enhance early warning, (c) build a culture of safety, (d) reduce underlying risks, and (e) strengthen preparedness across the board.

“Asia’s report card is mixed, though progress has been striking in some areas.” Indonesia, which bore half the tsunami deaths, is a trailblazer. Its reconstruction effort evolved into a thoroughgoing disaster risk action plan that effectively used a second tsunami of aid, Development Asia notes.

Maldives, Thailand and Vanuatu, among others, cobbled new disaster risk management agencies. Measures range from new laws to relocation schemes, to a region-wide web of early warning systems anchored by the pan-regional Deep Ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis.

More significant, official mindsets are breaking free from  the cast-iron mold of after-disaster responses. Coming to the fore are before-the-storm risk management programs. “Ever so gradually, the roots of resilience are sinking deeper into Asia’s political and economic superstructure.”

Learn from Legazpi City’s “Zero Casualty” initiative. Two earlier cyclones killed over a thousand in Albay province. Then newly-elected governor Joey Salceda implemented a program for disaster preparedness “anchored on science or knowledge derived from research and practice.”

Upgraded hazard maps today pinpoint places under threat. A radar tracks typhoons. Systematic efforts are made to  monitor eruptions from active volcanoes. More than 5,000 families have been relocated. And a trained local volunteer corps is in place. Salceda puts cash where his mouth is. The province spends 9 percent of its budget on activities like mangrove regeneration as a buffer against storm surges and tsunamis. “There is no single bullet to doing this all,” Salceda said. “The only secret is common sense.”

Is common sense what we lack, asks Cebu Daily News. Only one out of the 51 towns and component cities in Cebu province has an honest-to-goodness disaster risk reduction and management (DRRM) office.

The  standout is San Francisco in  Camotes Island. The former mayor Al Arquillano is credited for tracking Yolanda’s approach and his early decision to evacuate town people. Result: zero deaths and minimal property damage.

The Camotes town meets the standards set by the Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act of 2010 (Republic Act No. 10121).

The international community hailed Camotes as a model.

In contrast, the 50 other towns have risk management offices—on paper. “Setting up a DRRM office and appointing a DRRM officer, for the sake of paper compliance, is a token gesture. The law mandates that at least 5 percent of a local government’s income should be appropriated for disaster risk reduction and management. So how are LGUs really using this standby fund?…

“Cebu City provides some comic relief in the bad habit of token response.” The city council declared a “‘State of Preparedness’ for the expected arrival of El Niño next month. Big words.” Declaring a “state of preparedness” for a calamity is not just redundant. It may actually mean unpreparedness. The last thing we need is a “pwede na” attitude, Cebu Daily News concludes.

Disaster risk information often does not trickle down to local communities. And when it does, it may be in forms that are not user-friendly, adds Development Asia. Building new houses is only half the battle.

Many people are reluctant to jettison the only livelihoods they’ve ever known, including farming or fishing. New skills  are needed. For others, the call is to think bigger. Some Visayas coconut farmers use post-Yolanda aid to diversify from copra  to furniture, coco sugar and other products.

Boldness in policy making is needed to secure a resilient future. Can we expect that from a Congress grappling with four lists of the same pork barrel crime? Inquirer’s Solita Collas Monsod puts it well: “That knocking sound you hear is porkers in government shaking in their boots… at the real possibility of jail and, better, getting barred from public office.”

(E-mail: juanlmercado@gmail.com)

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