The Philippines: The most dangerous land on the planet

Other lands are better at destruction with bombs and guns, but the Philippines occupies the most dangerous land.

Indeed, the Philippines does battle with God. And He can smite awesomely.

The Philippines ranks number one in the world for deaths caused by natural disasters. Last year, 2,360 people lost their lives in the Philippines due to natural disasters. China, in second place, was way back with 771. It was the same story in 2011.

This year is again proving to be on a similar scale of grief. You read the headlines as well as I do. We grow numb to the body count. It is so relentless.

Well, we understand that the Philippines is situated at the dead center of Typhoon Alley. It rests on the unstable “Ring of Fire” where volcanoes blast forth magma from the Earth’s core, and rides earthquake prone tectonic plates as they slip against one another. It’s the most dynamic location on the planet, bar none, positively terrifying if you think too much about it.

But does that not mean we should be taking special care in strewing flimsy bamboo shacks across the muddy slopes of hills and drainage channels?

[One of my blog's reader's] Jocelyn, asked me to examine why the Philippines is so vulnerable to natural disasters. It has turned into a fascinating project. Educational, for sure. The centuries-old Church of Our Lady of Light in Loon, Bohol is leveled to the ground as seen in this aerial photo taken from a Philippine Air Force helicopter on Wednesday, October 16. (Photo: PAF/PIO) The short answer is that, as in many things, the Philippine response is short-term reactive rather than long-term pre-planned. The lengthier answer follows. But let me say the single most important answer is the attitude one takes, the approach, the organization, the effort, and the COMMITMENT made to fight this battle as if it were a battle.

This is civil defense. And we ought to use a military approach.

Here’s what I’ve learned, along with a few relevant deductions and opinions.

Who’s responsible?

The Senate is responsible for laws protecting the environment and the people who live and walk in it. Senator Loren Legarda chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources. This Committee oversees the Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act of 2010.

This Act is a fine example of legalese run amok, totally incomprehensible legal language. I defy any sane human to try to read this law and figure out how lives will be saved. Any law that concerns itself with gender-balanced protection against storms is intoxicated with legal rectitude, not focused on saving people.

Read this and tell me if this is saving, or will save, lives:

“The civil defense officers of the OCD who are or may be designated as Regional Directors of the OCD shall serve as chairpersons of the RDRRMCs. Its Vice Chairpersons shall be the Regional Directors of the DSWD, the DILG, the DOST, and the NEDA. In the case of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), the Regional Governor shall be the RDRRMC Chairperson. The existing regional offices of the OCD shall serve as secretariat of the RDRRMCs. The RDRRMCs shall be composed of the executives of regional offices and field stations at the regional level of the government agencies.”

The National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (I’ll just call it “The Disaster Council”, because all those initials drive me nuts) is established in the 2010 Act as the managing agency for disaster prevention and response. Based on the detailed lists of events and activities on its web site, the Council appears to be an operating unit dealing mainly with warnings and after-the-fact response to disasters. Setting up the managing committees, finding channels for contributions and money, orchestrating rescue and repair activities.

As always, I search through government web sites looking for the leaders, and the clear plans that demonstrate the agency has its priorities straight. Then, I look at the financials to see if they are spending money wisely.

The Office of Civil Defense central unit reports to the Department of Defense, and oversees the Disaster Council.

It’s governing committee has six officials:

- Undersecretary Benito T Ramos, Administrator of OCD and Executive Director of natural disaster response agency.

- Attorney Priscilla P. Duque, Officer in Charge and Civil Defense Executive Officer

- Director Edgardo J. Ollet, Chief of the natural disaster response agency.

- Director Susana M. Cruz, Chief of the Office of Civil Defense operations.

- Ms. Crispina Abat, heading admin and finance division.

- Ms. Lenie D. Alegre, heading the planning division

The “Roadmap” on the web site is a blank page. So your guess is as good as mine as to what they are working on to prepare for and prevent disasters. The “Assessment Tools for Early Recovery Strategic Planning” is also a blank page.

I couldn’t find financial information on the web site. I’m afraid these things cause me to turn almost violently cynical. The Philippines is a small country. It’s about the size of California but with more babies. Why are we making this so hard?

Follow-through on disaster warnings and recovery is managed using a deep and complex rolling set of committees rather than a military chain-of-command that assigns individualized responsibilities.

I suppose that is fairly typical of the way the Philippines operates. Meetings, committees, diluted responsibility, taking forever to get things right as every T is crossed and I dotted, and common sense is abandoned.

Is that what we NEED? An administrative parley rather than fighting a battle?

Conclusion: defense against natural disasters is: 1) reactive to events rather than proactive and pre-planned, and 2) operates via accountability-free committee rather than the more decisive and accountable (yes, and perhaps more risk prone) military model.

I also know what would happen if you put that disaster law on the table of a family living in a hut on the slippery slopes of a drainage channel and asked them what it means to them.

A fresh start

So let’s back out of the legal Act and the website lest we get trampled in the relentless pounding of lawyers’ words and meaningless detail, so that we can start fresh. Let’s discuss natural disasters, the reasons for them, and practical things that can be done to protect Filipinos better.

There are two approaches that can be taken, I suppose, that determines how much we are willing to invest in disaster protection and recovery. One is to consider these deaths much like Americans consider that nation’s 40,000 auto deaths per year. They come with the territory as an acceptable risk.

If you want to drive fast, you will inevitably pay the piper at some statistical percentage of the whole, and if you live in a country with low cost of living, you must accept that many homes are made of bamboo and erected on free land on a river bank, near where land is cheap and day jobs may be possible or the begging is good. They wash away now and then. It's a statistical event. Move on.

The other approach is that of President Aquino, who points to “zero fatalities” from storms. This mission has obviously not succeeded, if we believe "zero" is actually possible, but it has promoted improvements to early warning systems and to disaster follow-up, and some work is on-going, to rehabilitate Manila’s drainage system.

What ought to worry us is that the storms are now doing damage in areas that are normally

spared the brunt of disatsers: Cagayan De Oro, Subic Town, Manila. Several times a year, at that.

All the warning in the world can’t protect businesses and residents from Manila’s outdated drainage system. Government agencies are actively working on that drainage system with little help from the people who, even after wading through several inundating floods, insist on tossing their plastic trash into the streets.

All the warnings in the world can’t protect against a lazy or uneducated public. All the warnings in the world can’t protect Subic from huge, unexpected surges of water pushing hard down four rivers at the same time, and the resulting destruction of water systems, bringing in diseases that kill.

If we plan for the 100-year flood, and the 500-year flood comes ripping through, we will have major damage, no matter how good our preventive measures.

So, a good warning system is not enough. We know pretty well now when big wind or intense rain is approaching, but we can’t exactly peg the intensity in a specific local area yet.

We know for sure we can’t stop the storms from unleashing their fury anywhere, at any time. Given that global warming is a done deal, we can predict that we will get more 100-year, 300-year, and 500-year downpours as the years pass.

Indeed, we’ll have to re-calibrate the intensity index.

Whatever shall we do?

Here are the short answers: 1) Better pre-planning, 2) Mandated evacuations, and 3) Develop a playbook.

Lets go through some ideas in these areas. You can add your own suggestions in the comment section, or tell me where mine are impractical.

1) Better pre-planning:

This is the area where the Philippines is weakest: looking forward and getting ready.

There are four main areas to work on:

- Better public awareness and accountability

- More stringent zoning and building codes

- Local Investment: Relocating residents, building infrastructure,

- National Investment: Buying ships and planes and medical equipment

Better public awareness and accountability: It would appear that the broad masses are absolutely clueless about the connection between how their tossing trash out the bus window and a flood washing their grandmother or their aunt’s sari-sari store into the West Philippine Sea is connected.

They don’t see how trash makes the nation poorer by killing sea life, requiring someone, somewhere, to spend time and money to pick up their garbage, or make people waste money repairing their flooded home or business.

It's money that could be spent growing the Philippines.They are also inclined not to heed evacuation orders, with a “It can’t happen to me” mind set.

The Philippines needs a good public relations drive to expand awareness, and it should require citizens to police themselves and their neighbors. Fathers should scold children. Friends should scold friends. Everyone should be working together to change trash-disposal disciplines and clean-up the Philippines. They should be working together to know their best escape route and where their designated evacuation shelter is.

I have thought about fines levied against transportation companies whose riders litter the streets, but enforcement would be too difficult to allow that to work. But, certainly, transportation companies should be a part of the publicity push to clean up the Philippines.

Get an advertising guy on it, eh? Tourism Secretary Jimenez could put together a brilliant creative and media campaign strategy in about two weeks. Make trash his job, eh? It’s connected.

More stringent zoning and building codes: Building codes are set by national order (“The National Building Code of the Philippines”). This is another law I dare you to read and understand. It gets into mindless detail about construction.

The pertinent section for our inquiry, however, is in Section 1.01.07 (b)

" . . . [Buildings] shall be at a safe distance from streams or bodies of water" or volcanoes and the like.

The definition of “safe distance” is left to the interpretation of local officials. Implementation of the Law is assigned to the local “Building Engineer” and ”Building Official.”

So, if there are vulnerabilties at local levels, it is because of the LOCAL determination of what is “safe,” or local failures to inspect and mandate upgrades. So, very clearly, the question arises: are local engineers and building officials clued-in to the rising dangers of global warming? Are they feeling the accountability for loss of life in their communities?

To the extent that [my blog's] reader Jocelyn expressed concern about Subic’s failure to protect residents, that failure rests squarely with local leaders: the mayor, his council, his engineers and his building officials. (his = her, where appropriate).

Somehow, excuse-making needs to be taken out of the picture. No mayor should point to his predecessor, or to the national government, or to another agency, or to global warming, or anywhere but himself for accountability for the well-being of his residents and businesses.

I also flip through this long, detailed national law and see in it a flaw that seems to be common in Philippine lawmaking: mindless detail goes into the law proper rather than being assigned as a code for upkeep by a designated cabinet department. This makes the law very inflexible.

In this case, whenever a building material is deemed unsafe (asbestos), or new materials introduced (carbon fiber), or old standards deemed not protective enough, the whole law needs to go back to Congress for revisions. Delegate to ensure proper care of the code, right?

And finally, we discover that there is no national zoning law. Management of land use is relegated to local governments. Localities mix industry, commercial and residential uses and seem powerless to stop unrestrained consumption of agricultural land for other uses. Projects are looked at based on the merits of the project, rather than in a context of project within a community. They are almost invariably approved.

The “context” of a good zoning plan is particularly important to restrain development in areas susceptible to rising ocean tides. Or to identify “no build” zones along drainage channels, and on or beneath earthen hills.

Rising seas are coming. We know it. Zoning should push structures back from the coast, and/or mandate higher construction above the water line. It should provoke a discussion locally about construction of seawalls, drawing a future picture of the community with an ocean one-meter higher. Every coastal community should have a “rising ocean” plan.

The nation needs a national zoning law to mandate better community planning, better safety, and to step up protections in anticipation of more intense storms and rising seas.

Local investment - relocating residents and building infrastructure: Some projects take time because they require big money. It is hard to sustain interest and a sense of urgency. We can see this is the slow efforts to upgrade Manila’s drainage system.

Again, we are fighting a battle, and certain defenses MUST be in place before the next enemy attack:

- Alternative housing and relocation of informal settlers

- Flood control barriers and seawalls

- New drainage channels

Wealthier communities such as Puerto Princesa are taking proactive steps to close down squatter villages and provide alternative housing that is safe. Poorer communities struggle to do this. The forces at play are difficult to work out sometimes -- the poor wanting their government to do more for them or refusing to move, government officials wanting the poor to be more understanding of their mandate to protect lives.

A military approach brooks no hesitation. Cities and municipalities need to make investments for alternative housing and relocations, starting with the most dangerous locations. Many are already doing so. Governments also need to state and enforce building standards and not let the seeds of new squatter communities spring up.

Encouraging new tools are coming to the scene to help local officials identify high risk areas. The Australian government is helping with high-resolution mapping that identifies vulnerable locations in Manila and other population centers. The nation’s largest rivers are being mapped by the same system.

Responsive and responsible local governments will use such tools to invest in long-term projects to protect their citizens. These include: river retainer walls, higher bridges, relocation of homes, new drainage channels, sea walls. Negligent local governments will find reasons not to act: politics, budget, corruption, and no sense of urgency.

National investment - buying ships, planes, and medical equipment: If we adopt a military model that says we need to be in a national defense mode, then we need the equipment, too.

Which one is costing us more lives now: China sitting on rocks in the Philippine seas, or attacks by national disasters coming at us every few months? We buy boats and planes to counter China? But where is the hospital ship? Where are the Chinook helicopters and MASH hospital units?

One of the big problems in Bohol now is that roads are cut off and access must come from the sea. We ought not let it happen again. I’m saying lets fight a better, more equipped, battle.

2) Mandated evacuations

If buildings are deemed to be safe for a 100-year flood, and a 100-year flood is possible with an approaching storm, evacuation from unstable slopes, river banks, or flood zones should be mandatory. Residents should know their assigned evacuation centers, and these centers should be safe and stocked with food and water for three days. The barangay structure of local governance is ideal for managing evacuations.

The Philippines requires a “Civil Defense” system as intense as was America’s effort to protect citizens against possible nuclear war in the 1960s. Instead of bomb shelters, the Philippines needs well-protected, well-stocked evacuation centers. Many likely exist already, like schools or civic buildings in safe locations. What is needed is the regimen mandating that people in vulnerable areas move to the shelters ahead of a storm’s strike.

Fines against violators should be steep. Guards against looting should be provided. Looters should receive very long prison terms.

3) Develop a playbook

How many natural disasters have we been through that teach us the same lessons?

1) We do not have rescue teams that can get quickly to remote areas with medical teams or supplies. No dedicated ships or helicopters.

2) Disasters wipe out doctors and hospitals and schools and water.

3) Officials are loose with their lips.

We can see from responses to recent storm, and last week’s Bohol earthquake, that steps to upgrade rescue and rehabilitation have helped immensely. The disaster agencies were in place, at work, quickly. Provincial leaders immediately declared states of calamity to freeze prices and open up avenues for funding rescue and repair work. Rehabilitation will likely be well-funded and move fairly quickly.

There is more to be done, though, and lessons to be learned and applied. I envision the time when every local government will have a playbook that provides a checklist of exactly what needs to be done. He will know who his lieutenants are and issue orders, not seek their guidance at committee meetings held in the heat of disaster.

I envision a large disaster relief organization standing by, not pulled together on the fly, with large Chinook helicopters ready to fly and loaded with medical gear.

I envision a large ship standing by as a rescue platform and hospital, a few hours away from anywhere on the Philippine islands.

Summary of actionable steps

I think The Disaster Council is getting better at managing post-disaster response. I may not like the committee approach, but they have enough case studies under their belt that they seem to have a good idea of how to deal with organization and funding of relief.

Sure, it can always improve. But recovery is not going to save lives as well as good pre-planning and preparation.

From the discussion, we have identified the following possible action steps:

- A national publicity campaign to place responsibility for preparedness with the people. For trash disposal discipline and awareness of evacuation steps.

- A deep discussion for what “safe distance” in the national building code means, with stringent standards applied consistently across all municipalities.

- Separate the building code particulars from the national law so that it can be flexibly revised and strengthened without returning to Congress for amendments. Enforce the code rigorously.

- Develop a national standard for the required level of flood protection: against a 100-year flood? A 500-year flood? I’d say, at minimum, a 300-year flood.

- Develop a national zoning code. This should require restrictions on construction along the coast, or on vulnerable river banks and hillsides.

- Introduce mandatory evacuation orders to be implemented when storms approach.

- Establish safe, well-stocked evacuation centers. Enforce orders with fines.

- Relocate vulnerable informal settlers whether they like it or not.

- Dedicate ships, helicopters and medical gear to the battle, on standby 24/7.

- Continue to learn and build rescue and rehabilitation resources and skills. Compile local playbooks and issue commands. Committee consensus is not required.

Zero tolerance for loss of life is the correct approach.

Develop policies by committee, fine. But fight the battle with individual accountability, a clear chain of command, and decisive action. Tolerate mistakes made in the heat of battle. Learn from them.

Complacency and equivocation are not acceptable when the next disaster is on the march and heading in our direction. – KDM, GMA News


Joe America is a blogger who writes about the cross-cultural experiences and observations of an American living in the Philippines. He is based in Biliran Island. This piece originally appeared in his blog on October 21. We are re-posting it here with his permission.


Editor’s note:Yahoo Philippines encourages responsible comments that add dimension to the discussion. No bashing or hate speech, please. You can express your opinion without slamming others or making derogatory remarks.

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