Sunday, June 13, 2021

Algo: Addressing climate-related disasters in Covid-19 era

WHILE the Philippines is recovering from the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, its vulnerability to climate change remains among the world's highest. The country's capacity for resilience will face more difficult challenges as it braces itself for a season marked by extreme weather events, which are becoming more extreme due to global warming.

Is the Philippines ready to prepare for the impacts of likely typhoons, monsoons, and other events while still dealing with the global health crisis?

The nation had its first experience under the "new normal" as category 3 typhoon Vongfong (or Ambo) last May. It made seven landfalls across Luzon and Visayas, killing five people and causing more than P1 billion in damages, mostly to the agricultural sector.

However, the Covid-19 pandemic complicated logistics related to evacuation and response. Available spaces in typically designated areas for evacuees were reduced to comply with social distancing protocols. Locations intended for quarantines were used as evacuation shelters to accommodate more people affected by Vongfong. In some localities that urgently need quarantine facilities for Covid-19 cases, churches and malls opened their doors for evacuees.

Disasters disproportionately affect those with vulnerabilities associated with gender, age, and income, but the Covid-19 pandemic threatens to exacerbate the adverse impacts on these groups. For instance, farming and fishing communities in Bicol and eastern Visayas affected by typhoon Vongfong face more difficulties during recovery due to the economic impacts of the pandemic.

Blueprint for future action

The case of Vongfong is a warning for policymakers to strengthen existing frameworks for risk reduction management and avoid worsening the impact of one disaster while responding to another. The National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council (NDRRMC) must provide leadership in revising current strategies aligned with an integrated and efficient approach, in close coordination with local government units (LGUs), health officials, and other non-government stakeholders.

The current pandemic-induced restrictions necessitate changes in approaches to disaster preparedness and response, such as simulation exercises, risk communication, and mass evacuation. The deployment of local, national, and international assistance to affected areas could be slowed down by travel restrictions. The safety of local frontliners, from medical personnel to volunteer relief providers, must also be secured through additional training to address the impacts of both natural hazards and Covid-19.

To help address these challenges, multi-stakeholder programs, policies, and activities must focus on reducing vulnerabilities from the pandemic and potential disasters. Protection measures should be recalibrated to better address the needs of vulnerable sectors, including women, children, and the poor. Stimulus packages for restarting sectors of national economies must include the provision of livelihoods with sufficient incomes for vulnerable sectors. Experts must also lead in community-level mapping of vulnerable households to reorient support in preventing both the spread of Covid-19 and impacts from other disasters.

Another key action involves increasing capacities and resources towards multi-hazard disaster preparedness must be prioritized by authorities. Mechanisms such as preparation of adequate evacuation facilities and emergency supplies, strengthening the response capability of local health systems, and enhancing early warning systems are needed to ensure the safety of communities from both threats. For instance, the timely advisories by national and local authorities allowed P9 billion worth of rice and corn to be harvested before the arrival of Vongfong, reducing potential impacts on food security and economic stability.

Given the existing protocols to curb Covid-19, the importance of empowering local actors for disaster risk reduction has never been higher. The NDRRMC must provide leadership in coordinating with LGUs for strengthening disaster prevention, preparedness, and if necessary, response and rehabilitation through necessary financial and technical assistance. Existing partnerships and financing agreements must be revised to increase direct funding to LGUs and other local actors, and investments for building long-term resilience. There must also be an increased representation of other stakeholders in decision-making platforms and actions, especially the marginalized sectors.

The implementation of nature-based solutions at the local level would help in not only mitigating extreme weather events, but also preserve the health and well-being of communities. Strategies focusing on ecosystems-based adaptation and forest restoration are also more cost-effective in the long run than technical solutions, while also providing additional social, health, and economic benefits that aid in recovery from Covid-19. Given the challenges in accessing adequate resources and capacities, implementing nature-based solutions should be prioritized by governments, with support from funding agencies.

While progress has been made in the Philippines's risk reduction management since typhoon Haiyan in 2013, the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and projections of more extreme climate change impacts place a tremendous challenge on addressing future hazards at the national and local levels. In line with a renewed global call for prioritizing planetary and human health, the country must be ready to resolve these issues as its resilience will be put to the test for the rest of 2020.


John Leo is the program manager of Living Laudato Si' Philippines and Climate Action for Sustainability Initiative (Kasali). He has been a citizen journalist since 2016.


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