Disaster-ready, not

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Saturday, July 23, 2011

RESPONDING to emergency situations is a two-way process that involves the participation of both the state as well as with the community.

But what if the government and the community themselves are not ready for various calamities? Who or where will the blame be placed? Is it to the government that needs the support of the community or the community that needs the empowerment of the government?

The city's readiness to emergency responses and on how to deal with things after the devastation has been tested on the June 29 flashfloods that claimed the lives of 31 Dabawenyos. Fingers were pointed, mostly on absence of urban planning.

The flashflood was attributed to the overflowing of the Pangi River. While it was the first time that Pangi River jumped its banks for more than 10 years, it was not the first time the river did. The river has had a history of such, at an average of one overflow per decade or so. It could be because of such rare occurrence (half a generation in between), its menace is always disregarded.

When it jumped its banks in 1997, NHA-Bangkal, which was then being built, was inundated to the rooftops and floodwaters deluged homes upto Royal Valley in Bangkal, where the vice mayor used to live. Duterte, who was mayor then, was among those who was hit by the floods. The 1997 flood was worse because not only Pangi River overflowed but also Talomo river, thus, the whole Bangkal area was surrounded by floodwaters. The mouth of both rivers is just meters away from each other. In 1997, there was no Samantha Homes yet and Arroyo Compound was but a piece of contested land.

Despite such history, the June 29 flashflood was an eye-opener for the city's emergency response team, which before the flashfloods was thought to be well-equipped and well-trained.

Pepito S. Capili, officer-in-charge of the Disaster Operations Center of the Davao City Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (DCRDRMC) in an interview said barangay officials themselves were unprepared for what happened last June 29.

"Pwede ta mag-ingun na nag-change na jud ang panahon pero basig naa 'mi disaster preparedness plan wala pud jud mi naka anticipate na ing-ato ka grabe ang effect (We can say that the climate has really changed. But it's most likely that while we have a disaster preparedness plan, we did not expect such devastation)," Capili said.

Capili said during the June 29 flashfloods, as early as 10:30 p.m. they have already deployed several rescue teams from their office. The DCDRRMC has a total of 70 personnel.

But the teams were stalled right away, the flashflood was already rendering roads impassable. This was made worse by the narrow streets leading to the most affected areas.

This, Pepito said, underlines the need for the barangay's readiness to efficiently respond to emergency situations, especially when barangays are isolated and cannot be reached by centralized emergency teams like the ones coming from Central 911.

The first-responders remain to be the barangay council and their personnel, but this can only best respond when it can ct even before disaster worsens.

Central 911 chief retired Col. Verner Monsanto also points out that the flood exposed the most vulnerable areas once the Pangi river starts acting up again. But, he said, they cannot force residents to vacate their homes, especially legitimate homeowners.

Again, Monsanto said, all they can do is train people to be disaster-ready at the barangay level. June 29 was also a learning experience for Central 911 as even their rubberboats were unable to reach residents until after the waters have started to recede.

Search and rescue may be for the SAR-trained, but it is the barangays which can best reduce the risk so that only a few need to be searched for or rescued.

The roots of the problem

Standing out as the root of the problem is how development projects were allowed in hazardous areas like doglegs or bends along the Pangi River. Both Samantha Homes and NHA-Bangkal, the most devastated subdivisions last June 29, are hugged by the river as both subdivisions straddle riverbends. Both in fact, were miniatures of the devastated Provident Village in Marikina, Metro Manila, which suffered the brunt of Typhoon Ondoy in 2009. Like Samantha-Pangi and NHA-Bangkal, Provident is hugged by a riverbend.

Noel Angeles, chief of Mines and Geosciences Bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR-MGB), said in an interview that local governments cannot help but reclassify lands in order to accommodate progress. Thus, what used to be farmlands and rural settlements in Pangi are now residential.

He added that for as long as reclassification follows the procedures required by laws, then it is deemed to be legal and right.

The decision lies in the hands of the city council on whether they will allow such reclassification and project. It is the council that grants permission to reclassify and to develop. Thus, the importance of the legislative body's role in deciding for what is best for the city is underlined.

Among many tools, the MGB already has its detailed geohazard maps, but more than that, there are established and proven climate and topography-related patterns and risks that requires just a little bit of foresight, a lot of wisdom, and tempered greed. For one, rivers are supposed to have easements, not for aesthetics but because river levels naturally rise and fall depending on the amount of rain. Moreso, floodplains and riverbends are most prone to flooding because when a river overflows, these are the areas where the waters will crash through.

That is how it has been that is how it always will be. In China, they call these bad feng shui or designing against nature and natural elements.

Recognizing this lapse in judgment and political will of the past, Davao City Vice Mayor Rodrigo R. Duterte had urged the City Council to be strict in granting permits to real estate developers and other business endeavors that places residents at risk.

Duterte had earlier blamed subdivision developments for the incessant floods in the city where drainage becomes a problem especially when what used to be catch basins are filled up and built up without factoring in the volume of water that will be displaced and where these should drain instead.

Councilors must scrutinize proposed development plans, especially of drainage designs, to ensure that whatever development is put up will not contribute further to the flooding situation.

There is no natural disaster

The UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR) reported that 16 Philippine congressmen adopted last July 17 the "Incheon Resolution of Philippine Parliamentarians on Effective Risk Reduction and Climate Change Adaptation", calling for the mainstreaming of disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation in the national budget, in Incheon, Republic of Korea.

The Incheon Resolution was signed by Reps. Imelda Calixto Rubiano, Ben Evardone, Alfredo Garbin, Lucy Marie Torres Gomez, Roger Gaviola Mercado, Rene Relampagos, Cesar Sarmiento, Mel Senen Sarmiento, Maria Carmen Apsay, Jocelyn V. Bernos, Danilo Fernandez, Rodolfo Biazon, Jose Carlos Cari, Rodante Marcoleta, Ana Cristina Go, and Jesus Sacdalan.

The same report noted that the Philippines' Climate Change Act of 2009 and the Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act of 2010 are considered model legislations in the Asia Pacific region.

Filipinos now better. It is a fact that the Philippines is very good at making laws but implementation had always been left wanting.

Bottomline, the answer will still relay on the basic unit of governance, the barangays. Bottomline, too, high-risk areas are already identified, through the MGB's geohazard maps and by long-time residents themselves. All that is needed is for all those who build to take note of these, but most of all, for the regulators to refuse to grant any permit to any project that aggravates these risk situations.

In the UN ISDR's guide for journalists covering disaster risk reduction entitled, "Disaster through a different lens - Behind every effect there is a cause", it pointed out that there are absolutely no natural disasters.

"There is nothing 'natural' about a disaster. Nature provides the hazards -- earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods and so on -- but humans help create the disaster. We cannot prevent a volcanic eruption but we can prevent it from becoming a disaster," the report reads.

Citing a volcano eruption as example, it noted that a volcano that erupts in a wilderness is a natural hazard. But a volcano that erupts near a densely populated area has the potential of becoming a disaster.

Among the measures that can be taken to reduce the risk of the eruption becoming a disaster is "by integrating volcano risk in urban planning; reducing the number of people living close to a volcano; educating and alerting them about the dangers; preparing them to evacuate when the volcano erupts and; identifying shelters to protect them."

"Once we understand that there is a difference between 'natural hazard' and 'disaster', we then understand that disasters are mostly human-induced, and increasingly triggered by human activities such as deforestation, rapid urbanization, environmental degradation and climate change," the guide advices journalists.

Indeed, there are no natural disasters, there are but actions not taken or ignored. Suffice it to say actions are what makes the difference between a hazard and a disaster more than mere laws and that laws not strictly implemented are as good as inaction.

Disaster Response

As it is, the city could only respond to the disaster.

Thus, on June 29, the City Council placed Barangays Matina Pangi, Matina Aplaya, Matina Crossing, Talomo proper, and Ma-a under a state of calamity thus releasing calamity funds to help the affected residents.

The Council also allocated P51.5 million from the calamity fund of the city intended for the rehabilitation and any forms of assistance for the recovery of the five barangays.

The City Government through the City Planning and Development Office (CPDO) has identified two relocation sites where affected poor families may start building their new lives with their new home.

Roberto Alabado III, CPDO chief in an interview told Sun.Star Davao yesterday that around 70-80 familes have already transferred to a 20-hectares relocation sites in Los Amigos in Tugbok District.

Nothing has been said about the devastated homeowners, the subdivisions, and other developments and activities that impact on floods, landslides, even earthquakes.

In the sidelines, residents of Ma-a subdivisions are still crying out loud, but seemingly unheard, against development projects on Shrine Hills and other residences along riverbanks, and yes, the quarrying activity that has sliced through a hill...

One thing we can wager on, if those in authority will continue to look at the June 29 flashflood as a freak incident then Davao can look forward to a greater disaster in the next decade or so.

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