A disaster that could no longer wait to happen

September 21, 2018

The death toll from landslides in Northern Luzon provinces that suffered the wrath of Typhoon Ompong has put into focus what could have been a potential lifesaver: Geo-hazard mapping.

The tragedy that hit the rain-soaked mountainous areas in Itogon, Benguet seemed something that just couldn’t wait. That such disaster was bound to happen should have been clearly seen – and people would have been forced out of harm’s way – if only the benefits of geo-hazard maps were put to good use.

Many are now asking: How come danger warnings reflected in geo-hazard maps are seemingly ignored? Is geo-hazard mapping in the Philippines a dismal failure? Has the work of the once much-ballyhooed Project NOAH (Nationwide Operational Assessment of Hazards) led by Dr. Mahar Lagmay become virtually useless and also a failure?

When asked in a recent TV interview on ANC why the work of Project NOAH was not being used at present, all he could answer was: “It’s a long story.” When it was shut down early last year, the Department of Science and Technology said the work of Project NOAH “was essentially done, its outputs to be turned over to the different mandated national agencies.”

But although Project NOAH was out of action, utilizing the life-saving benefits of geo-hazard mapping would still be possible thru the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB), a line agency of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, which released geo-hazard maps in 2015 for use by local government units.

The 1:10,000-meter scale maps supposedly identify barangay areas prone to landslides, sinkholes, floods and other geological hazards. MGB officials have advised LGUs to “use the information, findings and recommendations provided along with the geo-hazard maps to enhance disaster risk reduction effort.”

With many precious lives lost in landslides, it’s obvious that MGB’s advice wasn’t heeded  or efforts to reduce risks were simply insufficient.

The trail of death and destruction spawned by Typhoon Ompong also highlights the need to establish the Department of Disaster Resilience to oversee efforts on disaster risk management and emergency response.

"A careful review of each of the natural hazards that the country faces will show that the Department necessitates a highly-specialized set of personnel, resources and policies to bring about disaster resilience," says the explanatory note of a bill sponsored by Malacañang and awaiting congressional approval.

A key feature of the bill is a clear system of responsibility “classified into four levels – from Levels 1 to 4 or from the municipal/city mayor all the way up to the Secretary of Disaster Resilience," according to the explanatory note. "This directly answers the oft-repeated question in times of disaster: who is in charge? This system of assigning levels of responsibility is aimed at ensuring unity of command and effective collaboration in the country’s disaster resilience efforts."

The need for the new department is essential amid a 2016 World Risk Index report saying the Philippines has a "high" (80.92%) lack of coping capacities -- defined as "measures and abilities that are immediately available to reduce harm and damages in the occurrence of an event."

The same report placed the Philippines at No. 3 spot among countries with the “highest disaster risk” and "in urgent need for action to improve their transport infrastructure, electricity supply, and logistics friendliness." Amid the unsavory report, efforts of government to be on a constant state of disaster preparedness and the cooperative attitude of people are essential indeed.

From experience, people size up future risks and mount a level of preparedness to meet extreme weather. People in Metro Manila, especially in Marikina, learned from Typhoon Ondoy. When rains threaten to be a repeat of “Ondoy,” cooperation of residents in evacuation efforts minimize devastation.

With the Philippines located in close proximity to the Pacific Ocean where typhoons are usually formed, we Filipinos ought to never lose sight of what the world’s strongest, Super Typhoon Yolanda, has taught us.

***

POSTSCRIPT: Happy birthday to Emerson “Emong” Reyes, and may more blessings of love, laughter, good health, and friendship come your way!

Email: insights.xlr8@yahoo.com