First published by Bulatlat.com
“A President must be on the job 24/7, ready for any contingency, any crisis, anywhere, anytime… As a country in the path of typhoons …we must be as prepared as the latest technology permits to anticipate natural calamities when that is possible; to extend immediate and effective relief when it is not….The mapping of flood- and landslide-prone areas is almost complete. Early warning, forecasting and monitoring systems have been improved…”
These were the confident words of Mrs. Gloria Arroyo in her State of the Nation Address (SONA) last July 27 as she vowed that her government will continue to invest in environment even as, according to her, the country is “safer from environmental degradation”.
But on that fateful weekend of September 26-27, all these talk about disaster preparedness – and sadly along with it more than 280 lives and more than ₱5 billion in properties (and counting) – were deluged by tropical storm “Ondoy”, which brought the heaviest rains and flooding in the country since 1967.
As expected, Malacañang quickly warded off criticisms for its obvious lack of prompt and organized response to Ondoy. In an attempt to explain the unprecedented devastation caused by Ondoy, Anthony Golez, one of the presidential spokespersons, noted that “When you try to scientifically observe the data … we will find this year and last year as very strange years, and we can only presuppose that this is due to climate change”.
Indeed, there is no disputing the fact that Ondoy in less than half a day brought rains in Metro Manila and nearby provinces a volume that was even higher than the usual rain that falls on the metropolis for the entire month of September.
But while there is no debate about climate change, which explains the abnormal typhoon patterns and intensity in recent years, accountability still falls on the Arroyo administration in particular on Mrs. Arroyo herself as President and climate change czar and her 2010 presidential bet Defense Secretary and National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC) Chairperson Gilberto Teodoro Jr.
More than two years ago, Mrs. Arroyo created the Presidential Task Force on Climate Change (PTFCC) as government recognized that “being an archipelagic country and located in the typhoon belt” the country “is highly vulnerable to the adverse effects resulting from climate changes and has been experiencing unusual number of high-intensity typhoons that have wrought devastations and anguish to our people”. In December 2008, Mrs. Arroyo appointed herself as the head of this task force so she can have a “hands-on approach in crafting and implementing initiatives for environmental security”.
Among the PTFCC’s tasks is to design concrete risk reduction and mitigation measures and adaptation resources, especially to address short-term vulnerabilities, on sectors and areas where climate change will have the greatest impact. This entails among others preparedness to respond to devastation or impact of extreme weather conditions brought about by climate change such as Ondoy’s.
At a loss
What happened last weekend? As early as Thursday evening (September 24), the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical, and Astronomical Services Administration (Pagasa) had already issued flood warnings and even raised storm signals by Friday (September 25). By that time, the NDCC could have already coordinated with concerned local government units (LGUs) and readied an evacuation and rescue plan. The forced release of water from the Angat and other dams during the height of rainfall last Saturday (September 26) – which aggravated the flooding – could have been properly timed with evacuation efforts, and would surely have saved many lives in affected areas.
But none of these were evident during Ondoy’s onslaught. Until Saturday noon, during the height of the heavy rains and when flooding began, the NDCC seemed to be at a loss on what to do. Numerous pleas for rescue from affected residents through the broadcast media mostly went unheeded and many were able to escape death by themselves or with the help of neighbors.
The NDCC’s excuse was that they only had 13 rubber boats at that time. Government, however, could not claim lack of funds. In 2007 alone, the Philippines received official development assistance (ODA) commitments from foreign donors worth $8.9 million to fund disaster prevention and preparedness aside from $32.28 million from 2005 to 2007 for climate change-related initiatives. These amounts are on top of what government allocates for its calamity fund. What happened to these funds?
Warnings came much earlier
Actually, the warnings came much, much earlier than Pagasa’s flood bulletin last September 24, if only government listened and responded enough. Extreme weather events and climate anomalies have already been observed in the country in the past couple of decades. The 2007 report of the United Nation’s (UN) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), for instance, noted that the number of typhoons entering the Philippine area of responsibility has increased by 4.2 during the period 1990 to 2003. Increases in annual rainfall and in the number of rainy days have also been noted as well as the increasing sea level in the country’s major coastal cities, with Manila exhibiting the highest increase.
The Philippines, in fact, is among the first countries to recognize the threats of the climate crisis. As early as May 1991, the late Pres. Corazon Aquino already issued Presidential Order No. 220 that created the Inter-Agency Committee on Climate Change (IACCC) under the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). The country is also among the original signatories to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) in 1994 and among the first to ratify its Kyoto Protocol in 2003.
It is important to note, however, that these landmark agreements which direct global response to climate change are hampered by fundamental issues. For instance, not only are the targets outrageously low, rich countries – which account for bulk of historical greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions with the eight richest countries comprising about 65% – can also achieve them even without actually reducing their emissions. In fact, the implementing rules of the Kyoto Protocol, as largely defined by First World countries and corporate lobby groups, could even result in a net increase in GHG emissions in the long run. Critics point out that the introduction and use of market-based mechanisms namely, the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), Emissions Trading, and Joint Implementation have systematically weakened and distorted the Kyoto Protocol “from the inside”. Meanwhile, under the current Medium-Term Philippine Development Plan (MTPDP 2004-2010), the Arroyo administration has pursued environmental management and addressing the threats and impact of climate change mainly in the context of energy independence and investment promotion.
In terms of response to the impact of climate change, it has been noted in a 2005 World Bank report that “the Philippine institutional arrangements and disaster management systems tend to rely on a response or reactive approach, in contrast to a more effective proactive approach, in which disasters are avoided, by appropriate land-use planning, construction and other pre-event measures which avoid the creation of disaster-prone conditions”. The report went on to say that “local level systems are response-driven –there is no obvious effort to initiate proactive hazard management/risk reduction coordination”.
While there are crucial issues that the international community and the Philippines must address in terms of mitigation and adaptation approaches in relation to climate change, Ondoy’s devastation and its aftermath have also exposed some very alarming and more basic issues. Among them is that while the country’s handling of extremely changing weather conditions is being described as reactive, it appears that even in terms of effective disaster response the country is not also well-prepared.
This is so evident not only in the disastrous rescue efforts of the NDCC but also in the current relief drive of government. The scene of flood victims scrambling for limited relief goods, overcrowded evacuation centers lacking basic hygiene necessities, displaced families forced to spend the night on sidewalks and some in a slaughterhouse amid reports of a depleted national calamity fund, etc all paint a picture of chaos, of a government stumped and perplexed in the face of a tropical storm that experts say was not even super typhoon.
Making the Palace an evacuation center for a handful of “fortunate” flood victims who enjoy relatively better food and more “convenient” temporary shelter to generate favorable publicity for Gloria and Gibo will not do the trick. The Arroyo administration, in particular Mrs. Arroyo and Teodoro as the top officials dealing with climate change and disaster response, must be held accountable for the hundreds of deaths and unspeakable suffering that the victims of Ondoy currently endure. They could not blame Ondoy or climate change – these are realities that the country must now face – but the question is are we dealing with them effectively and responsibly?