In the wake of the 2009 typhoon Ondoy, Republic Act 10121, the Philippine Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act of 2010, reformed the National Disaster Coordinating Council to the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council to better address the country’s need for comprehensive disaster preparedness as well as response. At the time, I felt it was far from the ideal solution I would have proposed for the Philippine government, yet I also believed it was a step in the right direction. NDRRMC emphasized preparedness as much as response, prioritizing all levels of government to develop and implement disaster risk reduction and management strategies to better prepare for, and reduce losses from, natural and man-made calamities, a necessary paradigm shift.
That was about two years ago. Since then, the country has endured many climate-related calamities now iconic in Filipino social and historical consciousness; e.g., typhoons Juan (2010), Pedring (2011), Sendong (2011), and Pablo (2012)—all names retired from the PAGASA database due to their damage and death toll. Add to that the “disaster with no name” (the Habagat-related August 2012 flooding), and even in terms of climate alone, the Philippines remains ill-prepared, ill-equipped to endure calamity. And climate is just one of a number of disaster threats facing us, both natural (volcanic, earthquake) and man-made. We should commend NDRRMC for making great strides, yet the evidence shows greater strides remain, which I fear NDRRMC might not be able to make.
In the United States, on the other hand, disaster risk reduction management is the rubric of an agency with its own iconic status in American consciousness: the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), created in 1978 as an independent agency (later brought under the Department of Homeland Security in 2003) to prepare the country for calamities, and coordinate preparation, response, and recovery activities. FEMA is the ideal solution I would have proposed for the Philippines.
Its (former) status as an independent agency is the critical advantage FEMA has over NDRRMC: a single, permanent organization with the mandate, powers, and budget to oversee a singular, comprehensive, coordinated strategy to ready the territories of the state for natural and man-made disasters and other similar emergencies. An independent disaster management agency wouldn’t have to compete with the bureaucratic priorities of a host bureaucracy; e.g., the Department of National Defense—or for that matter, the competing bureaucratic priorities of the other Cabinet secretaries who make up the NDRRMC. In fact, some criticized placing FEMA under DHS for precisely that reason (DHS’s responsibilities include border security and counter-terrorism).
In an October 2012 paper written with Ateneo School of Government colleagues, we noted the importance of localizing DRRM at the local government unit level, and coordinating DRRM with climate change adaptation measures in socio-economic development strategies. In addition, we’ve cited another paper’s stress on the importance of developing a DRRM knowledge base to inform LGU strategies and development plans. Despite the improvements the NDRRMC has over its NDCC predecessor, three years after Ondoy, the council arguably still doesn’t have the bureaucratic muscle to handle these objectives.
This gives us all the more reason to press government for a truly independent Filipino FEMA. An independent agency would have a strong mandate to assist and train LGUs with DRRM/CCA strategizing and implementation. National response teams (e.g., an equivalent of the FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Task Force) can be brought under its management; an independent agency can also host disaster response training and exercises for disaster first-responders from other departments (e.g., armed forces and police), local governments, and private organizations (e.g., Red Cross). It can be given the authority to manage the national funds and budgets allocated under RA10121 to ensure effective and accountable expenditures. On that accountability front, an independent agency can also be responsible for setting standards of risk reduction that must be met by local strategies and ensuring compliance.
Given the Philippines’ painfully repetitive experience at the hands of climate calamities—especially for Mindanao last December, and the December before that—the only potential argument against such bureaucratic reform, increased budgetary pressures of an independent agency (and any associated corruption risks), should not be a significant argument at all. A nation that isn’t willing to pay for disaster preparedness now will certainly pay for the disaster in lives and resources when—not if—it hits. As history has shown, we pay for disasters time and time again: over two billion pesos in damages and about a thousand and two hundred fatalities for Sendong in 2011, P14 billion and a little over a thousand deaths for Pablo (as of mid-December). The National Statistics Coordination Board estimates about 291 billion pesos in losses to storms and floods over the past 20 years.
We have a responsibility of breaking this broken record story of Philippine climate calamities—not to mention preparing for other types of calamities. The shift to DRRM in 2010 was the first important step in bringing Philippine disaster preparation up-to-date. An independent agency, a Filipino FEMA, is the second. In the wake of Pablo, it’s a step we need to make, before the next major typhoon hits. It’s what we owe to every casualty of every disaster the Philippines has endured.
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