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Monday, April 22, 2019

Editorial: Fatal floods in Carmen

ON paper, Carmen was ready to deal with a disaster.

In the 2016 Cities and Municipalities Competitiveness Index, this town on Cebu’s northeastern flank ticked all the boxes in terms of disaster risk reduction and management (DRRM). It has a DRRM plan and an office to implement it. A local executive order or ordinance to require DRRM? Check. A budget for DRRM? Again, check.

What Carmen reportedly lacked, before eight of its residents died in a flood in the first, dark hours of Easter Sunday, were early warnings about the risk of floods. Some of us in Metro Cebu had received text messages on Saturday about the approach of tropical depression Crising. Did anyone in Carmen get similar texts?

To be fair, there were warnings. But how well did these warnings circulate in the vulnerable areas? That’s something officials in the town and province might have to reassess.

At 5 p.m. last Black Saturday, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) released a bulletin, which said that areas under Signal No. 1—including Northern Cebu—could expect “moderate to occasionally heavy rainfall” and should guard against flashfloods and landslides. The weather bureau PAGASA, at 6:34 p.m. on that same day, said in a tweet and a Facebook post that “light to moderate with occasional heavy rains” for one to two hours could be expected in Northern Cebu, Metro Cebu, Balamban, Toledo, Pinamungajan, Aloguinsan, and Barili.

We do not meant to rub salt into still-raw wounds, but in order for warnings about impending disaster to work, communities need more than rainfall or water level monitoring facilities, sufficient training to use them, and a reliable communication system. Also needed are quick decision-making (such as when to evacuate), the availability of safe evacuation centers, and the cooperation of at-risk communities (in other words, the willingness to heed the calls to evacuate).

Climate change has all but assured that extreme events, like last weekend’s floods, will occur again. The World Bank, in its recently released report “Unbreakable: Building the Resilience of the Poor in the Face of Natural Disasters”, estimated that in a year, the Philippines risks losing the equivalent of 4.5 percent of its gross domestic product because of disasters.

One response from Carmen’s officials—a pledge to enforce a no-build zone on riverbanks—is a good one. But the community will need support from other government entities, in areas like flood prevention infrastructure and social protection mechanisms for the most vulnerable neighborhoods. And all of us will need to remember the costly lesson Carmen has had to learn.
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