EDITORIAL: Philippines braces for disasters

Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - Every year, life in the Philippines gets more dangerous with the arrival of the rainy season. It is thus quite appropriate that the seven days starting tomorrow, June 10-16, have been declared Disaster Preparedness Week by the Department of Interior and Local Government. That time of the year when storms and typhoons make for a lethal brew is just about here.

Disaster Preparedness Week aims to make those most vulnerable to the coming weather disturbances more aware of the risks. "This is part of the DILG program-to put dwellers along river banks and railroad tracks and other danger areas out of harm's way before the rainy season sets in," said Undersecretary Francisco Fernandez. Aside from dealing with informal settlers, the DILG also seeks to oversee disaster-preparedness activities for local government units. "The goal is zero casualty,'" Fernandez said.

Poverty, which pushes many Filipinos to, among other things, build their dwellings in the riskiest places, has done much to produce the terrible casualty and damage figures of the past years. Add that fatalistic attitude to government negligence in enforcing regulations and standards on land use, building construction, safety, etc. and to the effects of climate change, and you have a long list of disasters just waiting to happen.

Yet international observers have actually given the Philippines high marks when it comes to disaster awareness. Last month, United Nations special envoy Margareta Wahlström described our laws on climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction as the "best in the world." Last December, the European Community Humanitarian Office (Echo) took notice of the Philippine government's efforts in mitigating the destructive effects of Typhoon "Pablo" (international name: "Bopha"). Citing preemptive evacuations and putting the relatively high death toll of more than 300 in context, Echo team leader for Asia Jenny Correia Nunes said that when Bopha hit, "I think the government was more prepared than it had been in the past." The UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction echoed this observation, adding that accurate weather forecasting and flood warning systems had added greatly to the improvement.

(These may come as a surprise for people who, so to speak, have been down so long it looks like up to them. It's too soon, after all, to forget "Ondoy," which ravaged Metro Manila and environs in 2009, and "Sendong," which devastated Cagayan de Oro and Iligan in 2011-both "mere" tropical storms, not typhoons, but literal high watermarks in Philippine disasters.)

If there is one thing that Filipinos need to be aware of and to prepare for, it is the so-called "Big One," an earthquake of unthinkable intensity that may strike at any time. A 2004 study by the Japan International Cooperation Agency, the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority and the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology noted that Metro Manila is very vulnerable to powerful earthquakes, and that a magnitude-7.2 quake could instantly kill 34,000 people, injure 110,000 and leave 1.2 million people homeless, with resulting fires driving up the casualty count.

Additionally, the multinational intelligence firm Pacific Strategies and Assessments (PSA) issued a 2010 report stating that the effects of such an earthquake would be amplified because of lack of preparedness and lax enforcement of safety standards. Scientists have long warned that this scenario may happen in the near future, and have predicted its dire effects on the burgeoning population. "With a daytime population of more than 14 million, existing rescue and relief facilities of local governments across Metro Manila will simply be overwhelmed," the PSA report said.

The Philippines is identified as the third most disaster-prone country in the World Disaster Report 2012. Yet hope springs eternal that we can get our act together, that with accurate information from scientists and forecasters, the LGUs and the national government can properly prepare the public for the dangers that lie ahead. It is their job and our responsibility. We need disaster preparedness to last more than a week; it should be a way of life in a country smack in the typhoon belt and in the Pacific Ring of Fire.

Be safe, not sorry.

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