Answering the threats of natural calamities in the Philippines

Roughly one month has passed since Typhoon Odette devastated various regions of the Philippines, specifically the Visayas islands. Houses, bridges, and harbors were left in ruins, while trees and electrical posts were uprooted. Lifeline accessibility was greatly hampered, with access to electricity and safe drinking water returning only after two days or more. With this tropical typhoon’s strength and wind velocity, a number of Filipinos recalled the horrors of Typhoon Yolanda, which literally left thousands of lifeless bodies scattered across Eastern Visayas. Specialists would mention that Typhoon Odette had the potential to wreak havoc in a similar degree to how Typhoon Yolanda rampaged the islands a decade ago, but damage caused by this typhoon were somehow ameliorated due to the current administration’s preparations when it came to information dissemination and relief operations.

Geography and geology heavily dealt the Philippines a deadly pair of cards. The first card refers to the country’s location in the Pacific Ring of Fire. Numerous dormant and active volcanoes dot the whole archipelago. Below them lie tectonic plates that continuously move, where the released energy in the form of earthquakes causes the ground to shake and in turn, destroy human settlements since time immemorial. Volcanic eruptions and earthquakes had, as such, been a recurring part of Philippine history. The eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 and the Baguio Earthquake in 1990 headlined international news. The other card the Philippines was dealt with is about these tropical storms and typhoons, the frequency and intensity of which are expected to be exacerbated by climate change in the following years.

Numerous environmentalists and internationalists quickly point out that the Philippines should actively participate in global efforts in pursuing climate justice, specially considering that the whole archipelago is highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Calling on the Global North or these First World countries to shoulder the financial burden of developing environmentally-friendly technologies in the name of climate justice should not dissuade Philippine policymakers about the facts on the ground. Reality presents to us that self-help is something that the Philippines can only rely on. It is really only Filipinos who are in a position to help themselves. Fortunately Japan, a country in the Global North, can provide us an approach that the Philippines could emulate in pursuing disaster resiliency.

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Known as the Land of the Rising Sun, the Japanese Islands were also dealt cards similar to that of the Philippines. An archipelagic country in the Pacific that has its own share of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tsunamis surely created this hardened nation. In addition, absence of natural resources like petroleum and minerals makes the game of survival harsher for the Japanese. The mountainous terrain of the islands also creates an agricultural environment unsuitable to feeding more than 125 million mouths. This triple whammy forced the Japanese civilization to engineer durable institutions paired with strategic policies to mitigate these geographical limitations. What portions of the Japanese society should the Philippines learn and accept, so as to substantially reduce these geographical risks associated with natural disasters?

First is to strengthen, sharpen, and modernize the Philippine armed forces to ensure they would be properly maintained and can be deployed rapidly. Even though the American-imposed pacifist constitution constrains their current military capabilities, the Japanese Self-Defense Forces or the JSDF actively participates in times of national crises. Flash floods and avalanches happen annually in Japan, so these uniformed personnel are called upon for search and rescue operations. In addition, the JSDF have helicopter carriers, which can be refurbished to house numerous fighter planes. Even though aircraft carriers have been recently turned into weapons of military power projection, these types of naval and aerial assets are used depending on the country’s needs. A Philippine helicopter carrier deployed between the islands would definitely save numerous lives during disaster situations.

Second is to regularly conduct topographical studies, because a country’s geological make-up changes with time and plays a significant role in determining an area’s vulnerability when a natural calamity strikes. Unfortunately for the Philippines, numerous government and private agencies are still using Marcos-era maps and data, which have already far outlived their purpose. Updated hazard maps can recalibrate the government’s priorities in acting when a disaster happens. These types of maps can be obtained through the local offices and may help direct one’s actions when evacuation orders are issued.

Third is to continuously invest in infrastructure programs. The durability and accessibility of roads, bridges, and air strips always serve as the starting point of relief operations. These man-made structures should be robustly-designed and maintained properly so as not to degrade with natural wear-and-tear. These infrastructure programs should also include reliable, consistent, and stable lines of communication. With this, government-issued calamity warnings would be easily disseminated to the populace, most especially when it comes to earthquakes since quick yet rational human actions mean life or death consequences. In Japan, they have created a complex warning system that connects various seismometers and computers and detects an earthquake a few moments before it strikes. This technology has arguably saved thousands, if not millions of lives.

Finally, decentralizing government powers may indirectly assist in answering these natural calamities. This is in considering the fact that each province and region in the Philippines faces different environmental challenges in varying degrees. East Visayas and Bicolandia are typhoon-prone regions, while the Davao region has had its recent share of earthquakes. Other regions like the Cagayan Valley have experienced flash floods, while Calabarzon struggled with Mt. Taal’s volcanic activity. With limited resources, a federal or a semi-federal Philippines would allow local governments to wisely allot scarce resources, in accordance to the specific threats that they face. Unfortunately for Japan, it is a unitary government where directives begin and end with Tokyo and local government leaders have limited abilities. This can be noticed when even prefectural governors seek the Prime Minister’s permission to declare a state of emergency, which has paralyzed government action to a certain degree.

These points raised may not be readily adoptable, but nevertheless, may provide ideas as to what kinds of thorough calamity responses should be constructed by the government. Needless to say, financing a sound policy requires deep pockets. That is why it is imperative to liberalize the economy by opening up the country to foreign direct investments, which entails a reformed Philippine constitution. Through these investments that generate employment, the country’s coffers would be fattened, thus possessing the capacity to create a more disaster resilient Philippines.

8 Replies to “Answering the threats of natural calamities in the Philippines”

  1. Too verbose a piece that reads like a manual for relief operation BUT at the same time delivers some sense to it by providing the information we all need to know about how to improve our reaction system in times of calamities. I particularly agree on the idea of the country having a federal system of government. Once federalized, each state or federal region, having their own resources and means within their control would be able to respond to natural disasters and other emergencies much quicker and render effective and better services because it will no longer have to pass the red tape procedures coming from Imperial Manila.

    The federal state of Visayas, for example, will no longer have to sit and wait for decisions from Malacanang in life and death situations or remain immobilized because of slow communications and delivery of services with regard to strategic approach to utilize to counter the ongoing crisis.

    With the idea on how to correctly respond to emergencies having been laid down clearly in so many words, the only question that remains is how to bring about the realization of our country having to run under a federal system of government.

    I guess it will take some more serious disasters and life-changing calamities to force our leaders to consider changing the kind of system we have.

  2. Philippines is in a subduction plate. First thing that needs to be done is to leave the place because there’s no saving anyone once the real shit hits the fan. What happened in Tonga, can happen to us. Even worse. Islands can and will disappear. Climate change is a scam, it’s actually a Climate cycle. Ever wondered why every civilization in this planet has a similar story with regards to a great deluge? As per scientists, this planet has gone through 5 extinction events and it will happen again.

    Japan will take care of its own people first just as we should take care of our own people, problem is, the policymakers see no merit beyond speaking about the same narrative about “resiliency”.

    You ask “What portions of the Japanese society should the Philippines learn and accept, so as to substantially reduce these geographical risks associated with natural disasters?” The answer would be nothing. Because our cultures are incompatible with each other. We do not have the same mindset as them as they don’t have the same mindset as us. This is why we are often belittled in the world stage, because we can’t stand up without Uncle Sam holding our hands.

    Armed forces can only do so much. I don’t hear much about JSDF having to fight an ongoing insurgency like the ones in our country. It takes a bunch of individuals from the grassroots up to build true resiliency. But when people don’t care and they just expect government to come to their rescue, it creates a parasitic relationship.

    I agree with regularly conducting topographical studies but it all comes down to how much budget is going to that organization. It always ends up being chump change and everything else is wasted on other things.

    I agree with this one too, investing in infrastructure programs, but again it all comes down to how much budget is going to that organization. When people can’t even get decent housing here, how much more for infrastructure?

    Decentralizing powers would be better if each province is totally independent from each other. Rather than a federal Philippines, it’s better to have city-island-states. Japan is known for its red tape too but at least to their credit they do know how to act fast and be efficient unlike here where paralysis is often observed.

    Country is open to FDI, just not as much as the neighbors thanks to the rules in the constitution that badly needs changing. When you said “the country’s coffers would be fattened” just sounds like the “politician’s coffers would be fattened”.

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