7 Priority Actions to Manage the PH #ClimateEmergency

Co-Authored with Kristoffer Berse, Juan Pulhin, and Micah Nazal.

Within 3 weeks, Typhoon Quinta, Typhoon Rolly, and Typhoon Ulysses wreaked havoc in Luzon, Philippines, resulting in widespread, severe floods, death, and destruction, all against the backdrop of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Local governments and affected communities struggled with the cyclical experience of preparation, response, and recovery from one typhoon to another. 

The frequency and succession of these extreme weather events is a striking manifestation of the climate emergency we are facing. The Philippines is considered disaster-prone because of its natural geographic exposure to hazards, its degraded ecosystems, and its people’s vulnerability due to poverty, socio-economic marginalization, and a weak governance system, among others.

The Global Climate Risk Index 2020 report of the German Watch identified the Philippines as the second-most affected country in the world with regard to weather-related loss events such as storms, floods, heatwaves, etc., based on 2018 data. The same report indicated that the Philippines ranked 4th in the world in terms of long-term climate risk, using 20-year data from 1919 to 2028. Climate change has related but slow onset impacts that are also projected to aggravate the present and future situation of people and the environment. 

In the Philippines, a changing climate means increasing rainfall intensity and wind velocity associated with tropical cyclones, and more intense floods, landslides, and droughts. The 2019 Special Report of the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) on Climate and Land affirms that extreme weather events are set to become more frequent and intense, with more adverse projected impacts on human and natural systems, especially in highly vulnerable countries including the Philippines. We cannot afford to be complacent and settle for “business as usual” solutions if we desire a genuine disaster- and climate-resilient nation. 

Here are our 7 proposed key actions to effectively respond to the climate emergency:

1. Mainstream nature-based solutions in disaster risk reduction efforts

In the face of a changing climate, our best defense is nature itself. The Sierra Madre mountain range, for example, is deemed as Luzon’s typhoon buffer since it forms a 540-km natural defensive wall from Cagayan to Quezon against typhoons coming in from the Pacific Ocean. In 2018, the sustained winds of Typhoon Ompong — the strongest typhoon that year — weakened substantially from 220 km/hour to 160 km/hour after passing through Sierra Madre. This is neither the first nor only instance when Sierra Madre saved us from the wrath of strong typhoons.

Contrary to common belief, the dredging of rivers will not completely solve flooding problems in the city. A study from the UK’s Environment Agency has pointed out that it may only worsen flooding as it increases erosion and siltation and decreases bank stability. It is also costly and risky, as the deepening of channels might destabilize the foundations of bridges and other structures. The long-term solution to the city’s flooding woes are in the uplands, such as through the protection of remaining forest resources, rehabilitation of degraded areas, and promotion of sustainable livelihoods, especially forest-dependent communities.

2. Institutionalize integrated natural resources and environment management

The current environmental dilemma springs partly from the piecemeal, sectoral, and highly fragmented approach of pursuing economic development almost independent from environmental programs, which repeatedly proves inadequate and ineffective. A holistic approach that looks comprehensively at the direct and indirect drivers of resources degradation and how these drivers can be dealt with in an integrated manner will provide better results, serving as stepping stones to lasting solutions to the current problems.

It is imperative that an integrated approach to natural resources and environment management (INREM) be institutionalized. A central tenet of this approach is the interconnectedness between the sustainability of ecosystems and human systems. Specifically, this would require the institutionalization of the integrated area development approach, including the implementation of the watershed/river basin as a planning and development unit, mandating the collaboration among different stakeholders in the governance of these areas, and imposing responsibility and accountability especially in the case of untoward incidents, like massive flooding where there is negligence in the part of those individual/institutions concerned.

3. Invest in safer and durable evacuation centers

While we rehabilitate the natural environment, it is equally important to bolster our capacity to provide a safe haven for Filipinos in times of extreme weather events and other disasters that necessitate evacuation. The UP Resilience Institute has joined forces with advocacy groups Agap Banta and ASSURE on this front, as we call on Congress to establish a National Evacuation Center Investment Program (NECIP) that would target the evacuation center needs of highly vulnerable LGUs. As of 2019, more than half of highly vulnerable LGUs in the country do not have permanent evacuation centers. Schools and basketball courts – as well as churches –cannot be our go-to place for shelter forever. Roofs don’t count. 

To build evacuation centers that are, in the words of President Duterte, “stronger than a typhoon,” localized hazard assessments must likewise be undertaken to factor in multiple hazards, especially extreme weather events and changes in rainfall patterns brought about by a changing climate. Evacuation centers must be built away from the path of floods and landslides and other hazards. We’ve heard too often of stories of evacuation centers becoming practically unserviceable when you need them most (cf. Ulysses), or worse, of people dying in areas where they were supposed to find protection (cf. Yolanda and Pablo). 

Evacuation centers must be functional at all times for our investment to make financial sense. They must have a dual purpose: to provide a safe haven during disasters and to serve as community center for civic activities in normal times. Bangladesh has demonstrated that multi-purpose cyclone shelters can work, albeit belatedly, after they witnessed the death of at least 500,000 people in the wake of the 1970 Typhoon Bhola.

4. Enhance inter-agency collaboration for early warning and response

The recent Luzon typhoons showed a lack of coordination and collaboration among government agencies. This is particularly important in light of compounding disasters that may happen far too often in the future. The role of coordination, especially in forecasting, early warning, and evacuation, where time is critical, cannot be underestimated. We have seen this in how water from Luzon’s dams were released on the heels of Ulysses and how it aggravated the impacts of the disaster on low-lying communities in Cagayan, Isabela, and Pampanga. 

The subsequent pointing of fingers between the national and local government does not help. When the government and the public become entrenched in blame games, the opportunity for assessment, evaluation, and learning is potentially lost. Making informed decisions and improving collective preparation, response, and recovery activities in the future entails learning, adapting, and anticipatory planning. 

5. Promote inter-LGU cooperation in planning, response, and recovery

The occurrence of successive destructive typhoons amid an ongoing pandemic has tested the capacity of our disaster risk management system. Local governments, including some of the country’s best in Marikina and Albay, had to struggle with the onslaught of damage one after the other. These recent events have demonstrated that while we have made significant strides in building our local capacity in the past 10 years, strictly LGU-based responses will fall short in worst case scenarios and we cannot fall back on the national government all the time as it attends to potentially multiple ground zeros in the future. 

In anticipation of disasters becoming more complex, supplementary funding must be made available to support the disaster risk reduction, disaster response, and recovery efforts of poorer LGUs (i.e. 4th to 6th class). Mechanisms for inter-LGU cooperation and partnerships with the private sector and civil society, as provided for in RA 10121 and the Local Government Code of 1991, must be put in place long before a disaster strikes. Not-in-my-backyard approaches must be abandoned. We stand together or else we all fall before the forces of nature.

6. Strengthen the national focal agency for disaster risk management

The Office of Civil Defense, the NDRRMC’s Secretariat and implementation arm, has proven its mettle in past disasters in spite of its limitations in manpower, authority, and resources. However, as the country’s national focal agency for disaster risk management, it needs to be further strengthened relative to the expansion of its functions under RA 10121 and in light of the growing challenges posed by the climate emergency. Ten years into the implementation of the PDRRM Act of 2010, the OCD’s organizational structure and manpower complement are still largely based on a system that was established in the 1970s. On top of its limited budget as an agency attached to DND, the OCD’s top leadership — which has the rank of an Undersecretary — does not carry the authority required to exercise effective command, coordination, and control over other agencies in times of extreme need. 

At the strategic policy level, the council setup under the NDRRMC is proving to be unwieldy, with different line agencies pursuing seemingly disparate programs without the benefit of an integrated approach. During disasters, where no one agency is responsible, questions on leadership usually arise, with the national government ultimately receiving the public backlash. The creation of yet another task force to lead recovery efforts is a testament to how the council does not seem to work. It is redundant, if not completely unnecessary, especially since we already have a National Rehabilitation and Recovery Planning Guide approved by the NDRRMC last year, which places recovery in the hands of OCD’s Rehabilitation and Recovery Management Service, a task where, by law, NEDA should take the lead in the first place. 

The country will continue to face disasters intensified by climate change impacts, hence it is crucial for the Philippines to establish a standalone department or an OP-attached authority with the resources, functions, and authority to manage future disaster and climate change scenarios. It may be an independent line agency or an authority directly under the Office of the President. This needed institutional reform should not be costly, as we can simply integrate existing disaster-related units and programs from other line agencies into the new department or authority.  To effectively deal with the #ClimateEmergency, its climate mandate must be as strong as its disaster risk management functions. 

7. Declare a climate emergency

The government must declare a climate emergency to put the climate agenda on the forefront of policies and in the consciousness of Filipinos. Various stakeholders like the Climate Change Commission National Panel of Technical Experts (NPTE), UP Resilience Institute, civil society organizations, and other institutions have long been in support of this urgent call. In fact, some countries and many cities, including a few in the Philippines, have taken this step. In November 2019, the UPRI supported House Resolution 535 filed by Albay 2nd District Representative Joey Salceda, which prophetically called for the declaration of 2020 as the year of “disaster and climate emergency awareness.”

The Congress and local legislative bodies should take the lead on this by adopting resolutions which recognize the climate emergency and identify priority mitigation, adaptation, and climate justice policies and measures at the national and local levels. Mitigation actions would include hastening our transition towards a low carbon society based on renewables, preventing deforestation and land degradation while advancing forest restoration, and adopting climate-friendly agriculture practices. Adaptation imperatives consist of better land use policies (including the passage of a national land use code), optimum management of water resources, and building climate-resilient infrastructure. Climate justice requires that we have a strong voice in the global climate negotiations while also ensuring just and ethical transition processes in the Philippines. – Rappler.com


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