"What is Congress waiting for?"
You can’t stop natural disasters such as typhoons, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions from taking place, but certainly you can do something that would reduce their adverse effects on lives and property.
The Taal Volcano eruption last week, after four decades of dormancy, underscores once again the urgent need for Congress to fast-track the passage of a bill creating the Department of Disaster Resilience (DDR), which will be the primary agency responsible for disaster preparedness, prevention, mitigation, response, recovery and rehabilitation.
Once the DDR is up and running, it can facilitate the creation of permanent evacuation centers and the formulation of disaster management plans at the local levels to meet the ideal goal of zero-casualty in times of disaster.
It is estimated that the national government will have to spend between to P60 billion to as much as P100 billion to rehabilitate areas affected by the Taal Volcano eruption. But the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council that now overseas the government’s disaster response efforts has been allotted a measly P16-billion calamity fund for this year.
The NDRRMC is a multi-sectoral, multi-organizational structure but it is a mere task force or an ad hoc body. It convenes only when a disaster strikes, making it ineffective and inefficient amid a time of climate change and global warming.
The creation of the DDR would ensure a more efficient, coordinated, and complete system of disaster management—from risk assessment to emergency response right down to reintegration assistance and rehabilitation.
The proposed department would take on the powers and functions of the Office of Civil Defense, the Climate Change Office of the Climate Change Commission, the Geo-Hazard Assessment and Engineering Geology Section of the Mines and Geosciences Bureau, and other agencies now performing disaster response and management functions.
There are in fact at least 12 bills proposing the creation of the DDR, but not one of these has been passed by Congress.
So shall we wait for the next major disaster to hit the country before our lawmakers act on this measure?
We know that the Philippines is among the most disaster-prone countries in the world. We lie in the path of destructive typhoons from the Pacific Ocean that cause flooding and landslides that lead to loss of lives and property.
We are also part of the so-called ‘Pacific ring of fire’ consisting of active volcanoes that can cause massive destruction once they erupt.
We likewise know that here in our country there are geographic faults that trigger earthquakes and cause death and destruction in our communities.
And we have our fair share every year of man-made disasters, such as fires that exact a heavy toll on lives and property and even on the economy as a whole, and armed conflict in some parts of the country that lead to displacement of people from their homes.
The Philippines ranks fourth in the world among countries hit by the highest number of weather-related disasters over the past 20 years, according to the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR). We’ve known this from our own direct experience, but the UN keeps the records, so we are now aware that a total of 274 disasters were recorded in the Philippines from 1995 to 2015 alone. The Philippines is also among the top 10 countries with the highest absolute number of affected people, with 130 million.
No matter how hard we try, the economy will suffer setbacks every year. That’s because natural disasters exact a heavy toll on the Philippine economy annually, amounting to as much as P130 billion in damages, according to the Department of Finance. This is equivalent to about 1.1 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, according to Department of Finance estimates.
The sad reality is that developing countries such as the Philippines are the most vulnerable to the adverse impact of natural disasters. In other countries in the Asia-Pacific region, the annual economic loss due to natural disasters is around 0.6 percent to 0.7 percent of the country’s GDP.
The losses incurred from natural disasters prevent the government from concentrating on poverty reduction efforts, as the funds that should be used for programs aimed at alleviating poverty are instead channeled to disaster response and relief assistance.
Apart from the loss of lives, natural disasters cause widespread destruction of public infrastructure and private property and negate the gains made in our efforts to accelerate socio-economic development and reduce poverty.
Thus, poor countries should invest in disaster risk mitigation measures to prevent severe economic losses that could drive them deeper into poverty.
What’s worse is that just one powerful typhoon could wreak havoc on a massive scale, destroy the homes of the poor and their sources of livelihood, and thus wipe out the gains made in economic development. The higher we try to climb up the economic ladder, we find ourselves falling every time a disaster strikes. This should not be our inescapable fate at all, if only we are fully prepared to cope with natural disasters.
Being prepared can reduce fear, anxiety, and losses that accompany both natural and man-made disasters. Communities, families, and individuals should know what to do in the event of typhoons, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions other natural disaster. They should also be ready to evacuate their homes and take refuge in shelters and evacuation centers where they can avail the themselves of adequate food and medical help as needed.
So what’s Congress waiting for?