Business World, 20 December 2011

Even as the nation grieves the constantly rising deaths from the Sendong tragedy, the rebuilding should begin immediately. The number of deaths would likely surpass the near thousand deaths from the most damaging tragedy in recent Philippine history — the Ondoy and Pepeng twin typhoons in 2009.

As a nation and society, we seem to have short memories and we don’t learn from past mistakes. 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 damages 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 P11.1 billion. Damage to agriculture and fisheries were estimated at P23.6 billion as of Nov. 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 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 the political leaders and top bureaucrats.

The economic loss as a result of the recent Mindanao tragedy may not be a huge as the Ondoy-Pepeng catastrophe, but it is certainly more costly in terms of loss of human lives. The important question are: will the Cagayan de Oro and Iligan City area tragedy suffer the same fate as the Ondoy-Pepeng catastrophe? Will the risks of yet another catastrophe be forgotten after the victims of the tragedy are buried?

Role of the government

The government has a responsibility to protect the life, liberty and property of every citizen.

It is enshrined in the Constitution as one of the principles of state policies. Article II, Section 5 reads: “ The maintenance of peace and order, the protection of life, liberty, and property, and the promotion of the general welfare are essential for the enjoyment by all the people of the blessings of democracy.”

Would the incumbent leadership leave behind a government and institutions that are better prepared for future calamities?

3 warning bells

The government of the day has the responsibility to know the risks involved as a result of natural calamities. And it should design, finance, and implement policies designed to mitigate such risks.

The Aquino administration has enough warning of the risks and the enormity of the task.

First, it is of public knowledge that the Philippines is highly prone to natural calamities. 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 complied 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.

According to the CRED report, the disasters that often hit the country are classified as geophysical-like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, hydrological like floods and landslides, meteorological like typhoons, climatological like El Niño and biological like animal infestation and epidemics. Of the 24 disasters that hit the country in 2010, 14 were classified as meteorological, nine were hydrological, and two were geophysical.

Second, the tragedy that struck the cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan was predicted three years ago. But lawmakers dismissed the warning as “too alarmist.”

Jose Ma. Lorenzo Tan, chief executive of the World Wide Fund for Nature-Philippines (WWF), said Monday the events in Northern Mindanao at the weekend “was an exact fit” of the prediction made based on a simulation of the effects of extreme weather events from climate change such as saltwater intrusion, sea level rise and intense tropical cyclones on Philippine cities. Nereus Acosta, who headed the PICC, now serves as the presidential adviser for environment. Has Acosta advised President Aquino on the matter?

Third, as early as last year, President Aquino was already briefed on the calamity risks the nation was facing. It was reported that at least 44 provinces have been identified by the government as ‘high risk’ areas for flooding, landslide and other storm-related eventualities.

Aquino, according to news report, has instructed his men and women to lay down plans on preventing devastation similar to what the Philippines suffered in the Ondoy-Pepeng twin tragedy. Social Welfare Secretary Soliman was quoted as saying: “[President Benigno Aquino III) has instructed us to begin coordinating with the LGUs (local government units) so that we can identify different villages or households at risk.” Was the instruction heeded?

Soliman added they are now crafting disaster prevention measures for the residents of the 44 high-risk provinces, which include Quezon, Leyte, Samar, and those in the Bicol region and Caraga area. That was a year ago.

The responsibility for crafting and implementing a national disaster preparation and mitigation plan rests with the President and his men. He alone has full control of the national budget and he does not have the distraction of running for reelection. By contrast, legislators, with few exceptions, are myopic — thinking of what’s good for his district and what will promote his reelection or election to higher office.

All told, with all these prior warnings and preparation (if there was one), there is no excuse for the mishandling of the Sendong tragedy. Back to the drawing board.