Times change and so does the nature of disaster risks. Poverty, badly planned and managed urban and regional development, informal settlements on unsafe lands, vulnerable rural and urban livelihoods, and ecosystem decline are the underlying drivers that increase the risks of natural hazards turning into disasters. Even as we confront these challenges, the impact of Earth’s warming temperature already looms over us.
According to the 5th Annual Natural Hazards Risk Atlas (NHRA), eight of the top 10 cities with the greatest exposure to natural hazards are in the Philippines, while the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) says the rate of sea level rise near the Philippines is three or four times the global average.
Faced with these difficulties, our concern now is how to effectively reduce disaster risk as it becomes more complex given the increasing frequency, intensity and uncertainty of extreme hazard events. We need to rethink approaches for disaster risk reduction (DRR) and sustainable development.
From Hyogo to Sendai
From March 14 to 18, the 82-member Philippine delegation joined contingents from 186 other United Nations (UN) member-states for the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR) in Sendai, Japan.
In this once a decade conference, nations gathered to assess performance in implementing the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA), which was negotiated 10 years ago at the 2005 WCDRR in Kobe, Hyogo, Japan.
Nations had this to confront: Even with the HFA, the past decade saw disasters continue to exact a heavy toll—a staggering 1.5 billion people were affected in various ways, including more than 700,000 killed by disasters. The total economic loss was more than $1.3 trillion.
As such, the successor framework now focuses on a more targeted approach to effectively guide nations and communities in managing risks and preventing the creation of new risks.
The Sendai Framework for DRR outlines seven global targets to be achieved over the next 15 years, including substantial reduction in global disaster mortality, numbers of affected people, economic losses, and disaster damage to critical infrastructure and basic services. It also aims to achieve an increase in the number of countries with national and local DRR strategies by 2020, enhanced international cooperation, and increased access to multihazard early warning systems and disaster risk information and assessments.
Parliamentarians from 22 nations recognized the need to fill in the gap in the implementation of DRR laws and committed to obtain the highest level of political support for the Sendai framework and create an enabling legal environment to ensure its implementation at all levels.
We have committed to amend or create new laws that will support a paradigm shift toward risk-sensitive and resilient development, as well as to regularly review these measures based on lessons learned to ensure their continued relevance and effectiveness. In line with this, there is a need to establish strong oversight to enhance accountability.
The general framework and policy for DRR should emanate from the national government in order for the whole nation to tread on a similar path toward resilience.
Good policies, however, are useless if we do not bring them to the local level. Our local government units (LGUs) must embrace these policies and translate them into action.
Our LGUs should be at the forefront of the planning, preparation and execution of the plans and measures because an LGU that is uninvolved, ill-prepared or detached from climate change realities cannot provide an effective “first line of defense” against disaster risks.
Effective governance and stronger implementation of laws are crucial. We must invest in DRR by following our geohazard maps to determine the no-build zones, opposite the safe areas to build housing and infrastructure.
There is a clear need to raise the standard for building structures. For instance, coastal structures, including roads and bridges, should be built and designed taking into consideration projected sea level rise due to climate change.
It is likewise the responsibility of LGUs to ensure that people understand the risk present in their communities. Action needs to come from the communities themselves. Early and mandatory evacuation will be useless if the people do not understand the need for such efforts.
As Supertyphoon “Yolanda” (internationl name: Haiyan) was about to make landfall in November 2013, authorities warned communities about storm surges that may reach up to 6 meters high and many citizens stocked up on food, secured their homes and stayed indoors, not knowing that it was not the kind of preparation for a storm surge. Even those in evacuation centers were not spared from the deadly onslaught of the storm surges.
Was it a case of inadequate information or a case of information not being understood and appreciated by national and local officials, and by the people on the ground? People had no notion of storm surges, plain and simple. In the end, it cost thousands of lives and the destruction of entire towns.
Raising public awareness should be made to resonate loudly and as far deep into the communities as possible.
Moreover, building on good risk reduction practices means going back to the very basics. We must protect our environment, which supports human life and provides the basic materials for our economy, including food, fuel and clean water. Along the coast, we must plant more mangroves because these are the best buffer against any storm surge and tsunami.
Early warning systems
Early warning systems, along with strengthened monitoring and assessment of natural hazards and improved forecasting and warning services, have been critical in reducing the risk of death and injury from disasters caused by natural hazards.
Significant progress has been achieved in strengthening early warning systems through the course of implementing the HFA. But significant gaps have been observed, particularly in providing services to grassroots and vulnerable communities.
The new Sendai framework promotes the establishment of multihazard early warning systems (MHEWS) to ensure that LGUs and the people themselves would know how to prepare for the various risks that a natural hazard brings.
When a typhoon comes, it may also bring with it a storm surge, flooding or landslide. Communities must be able to prepare for all these hazards, thus the need for MHEWS, which should inform the people of the potential impacts of impending natural hazards, the risks to their lives and livelihoods, and the action they should take.
This approach promotes public awareness and understanding of impacts and risks from natural hazards, and guides the people and sectors at risk in making decisions and taking early action.
On hindsight, perhaps the Guinsaugon tragedy (in Southern Leyte) in 2006, when a landslide in the village killed more than 1,000 people, including 246 elementary school children, would not have happened if the early warning systems reached the community.
The people of St. Bernard (in Southern Leyte) refused to see a repeat of that disaster, thus treading on the path of disaster resilience. The municipal government mainstreamed DRR by incorporating preparedness and resilience in its development programs.
With the help of foreign organizations, the LGU developed a multihazard early warning system and a simple and cost-effective public address system that was adopted in 17 villages. Vital information now reaches all households.
In fact, these initiatives were recognized by the UN when it awarded St. Bernard with a Letter of Merit at the 2013 Sasakawa Award ceremonies of the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in Geneva.
Making Sendai work in PH
This year marks a critical juncture for the global community as we take action on the interrelated issues of DRR, sustainable development and climate change—agenda that has brought us together in Sendai and which will lead us later this year to New York and Paris.
As we hope for sincere and ambitious commitments for sustainable development and climate action, and as our experts contribute to these negotiations, let us start working on what we have now. Let us all take a proactive role in making the Sendai framework work for us. Let us prove that our nation indeed remains steadfast in its commitment to building a more resilient and sustainable planet.
Sen. Loren Legarda is chair of the Senate committee on climate change and United Nations Champion for Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change Adaptation for Asia-Pacific.