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Disaster-prone Philippines slow to address issues

by Chico Harlan

The Washington Post

In one of the world’s most naturally deadly countries, catastrophes can originate almost anywhere. Flash floods race down mountainsides. A zigzag of tectonic plates collide below. Typhoons build in warm ocean waters and then tear westward.

And when disasters do strike, they strike hard, ravaging the Philippines’ shabby infrastructure and often leaving scores dead, injured or without homes.

The combination of geography and poverty leaves Filipinos at almost unequaled risk of calamity, a vulnerability that ranks among the nation’s most pressing and confounding challenges. For three straight years, typhoons there have killed more than 1,000 people, despite major government initiatives to reduce disaster risk. Typhoon Haiyan, which ripped through the central islands on Nov. 8, killed more than 3,600 and displaced 2 million.

Years of disasters — some capturing global attention, most not — have pushed the Philippines into an unfortunate category: that of an undeveloped country where lives can disappear en masse, sometimes in preventable ways.

If that image is to be broken, the Philippines must first contend with a set of problems common for a country pushing to develop its economy, everything from the haphazard layout of towns to the denuding of hillsides to make way for industry.

Over the past decades, Filipinos have flocked to risky, low-lying areas, havens for cheap and crammed housing. Officials say the Philippines must also improve emergency training for distant local governments in such districts, enforce building codes and make sure that money earmarked for infrastructure ends up helping those whose homes are the most vulnerable.

“We are improving,” said Eduardo del Rosario, head of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council. “In the next few years, we’ll be able to say that we are competent enough and we are prepared.”

Located on the Ring of Fire and in a main alleyway for typhoons, the Philippines will never be disaster-proof, experts say. But it can cut the risk.

If typhoons of identical intensity were to strike Japan and the Philippines, the Philippines would have 17 times the death toll, according to the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Center. Even in 2011, the year of the Great East Japan Earthquake and nuclear catastrophe, disasters forced three times the number of people from their homes in the Philippines.

Over the past two decades, the Philippines has experienced more than 300 disasters — everything from landslides to floods to volcanic eruptions. And Filipino officials say their disasters are becoming more severe, in part because of climate change. Four of the country’s 10 deadliest disasters have come in the past 10 years. The national statistics board says typhoons — 19 per year on average — have grown in power since the 1970s.

Research suggests that a warmer world will lead to stronger storms. Although most scientists balk at connecting any one event with climate change, the Philippines’ representative at a climate summit in Warsaw said recently that “hell storms” like Haiyan could become the “new norm.”

The impact of climate change isn’t spread equally, with the burden heaviest for countries close to the equator and lacking the “economic, institutional, scientific, and technical capacity to cope and adapt,” according the World Bank.

And the Philippines is struggling to keep up.

Since 2000, according to the United Nations, the Philippines has experienced a financing gap. In other words, the government doesn’t have the means necessary for rebuilding. Manila has doubled its “calamity fund” — covering aid and relief — since 2009, but this year the fund ran dry even before Haiyan hit. Whatever is needed for Haiyan that isn’t covered by international aid will have to be borrowed or come from cutting away at other programs.

“The national government resources are stretched as is,” said Lucille Sering, secretary of the Philippine Climate Change Commission, “and even before we could recover from one disaster, here is another one.”

The Philippines already has risk-reduction laws that the United Nations calls among the best in the world — at least on paper. Legislation passed in 2010 calls for 70 percent of disaster spending to be used on long-term steps. Just 30 percent is used for emergency aid, a shift from the earlier plan that put the emphasis on military-led relief after disasters hit.

But much of the responsibility for lowering disaster risk falls to the local governments, some of which operate like little fiefdoms in the nation of 7,100 islands. Local officials not only decide how to spend the money but also oversee building codes and land planning.

A report in January by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center highlighted the shortcomings of that approach, looking at the impact of Tropical Storm Washi, which struck the east coast of the southern island of Mindanao in December 2011 and killed more than 1,500 people.

The storm hit hardest in Iligan and Cagayan de Oro, nearby cities where more than 300,000 people had their homes destroyed or damaged. In both cities, the governments “chose not to carry out their official responsibilities regarding disaster preparedness,” the report said.

The cities ignored warnings from the Philippine Mines and Geosciences Bureau that many residents were living in hazard-prone areas — particularly sand bar islets that could be easily flooded and had been designated as “no-build zones.” Some had built homes in that area under a housing program for the poor by the Cayagan de Oro mayor, who allowed people to settle in unsafe areas for 1 Philippine peso, or about 2 U.S. cents. More than 1,000 took up the offer, the report said, and ended up being among those most affected by the storm.

In the Philippines, the report said, “decisions are based on electoral considerations rather than on evidence or technical assessments.”

When disasters happen, Filipinos have little recourse. Only a fraction have insurance or any claim to property ownership. Many of the buildings damaged by Haiyan, for instance, were informal settlements made of lightweight materials — bamboo and wood, with corrugated metal roofs.

In theory, a major disaster opens room for improvements. Cities can be rebuilt using more concrete. Certain areas can be marked off-limits, based on scientific hazard mapping.

For as problematic as climate change is, poor planning — cutting forests, ignoring building codes — is many times deadlier, said Jerry Velasquez, the United Nations’ head of disaster risk in Southeast Asia.

“We hope that something like (Haiyan) will turn the tide,” Velasquez said. “Our argument is, it’s not a cost, it’s an investment. Right now, you have all this international aid flowing in. I hope it will go into building resilience, so things aren’t rebuilt just as they were.”