ENVIRONMENT: Ready for the next disaster?

“The calamity that comes is never that one we had prepared ourselves for.” – Mark Twain

The scene seemed to come out straight from a Hollywood movie, The Impossible, except that it didn’t happen in Thailand but in the Philippines, particularly Compostela Valley, during the time when typhoon Pablo struck the province.

As onrushing water held them captive, Rogelio Saging held tight his three young children with his eldest son Rudyard close behind.  His wife Violeta was also trailing them.  But the current was so strong; the water was loaded with silt, gravel, boulders and clumps of fallen trees that they almost lost their hope of surviving.

Then, the unthinkable happened.  The parents saw how a fallen coconut tree hit the head of their third-year high school son Rudyard and carried him away from their grasp.  All was chaotic after that; they, too, were swept away by the strong current of flood.

Around 2 in the afternoon, it was a joyful and tearful reunion as the parents had found all four children all well – except for Rudyard, who was in a very critical condition.  Rescuers had found him barely clinging to his life.  Rogelio had only few precious moments to talk with his dying son before his torn and mangled body finally gave up.

This real-life story is just a preview of what will happen in the future as more intense typhoons will hit the country.  Normally, the Philippines experiences tropical cyclones of up to 20 a year.  In recent years, stronger typhoons have become more frequent.

“By the end of this century, tropical cyclones are expected to intensify, with a projected increase in the average instantaneous maximum wind velocity at the Philippine coast,” said the executive report of “Getting A Grip on Climate Change in the Philippines,” a World Bank publication.

Climate change has significantly contributed to these disasters. “Climate change is expected to lead to more intense typhoons, higher sea levels, and storm surges,” says another World Bank report, “Turn Down the Heat: Climate Extremes, Regional Impacts and the Case for Resilience.”

Filipinos are urged to be prepared for the worst impacts of climate change.  “Weather patterns could become unpredictable, as would extreme events; hurricanes could become much stronger and more frequent,” wrote Lulu Bucay in a pamphlet issued by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).

But typhoons and floods are not the only disasters that hit the country every year.  It is also devastated every now and then by landslides, drought, earthquakes and even volcanic eruptions.

“The Philippines is one of the most disaster-prone places on Earth,” says Kathleen Tierney, director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado. “They’ve got it all. They’ve got earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, tropical cyclones, landslides.”

However, the Philippines is not alone in this dilemma.  “Every year, between 600 and 800 natural disasters occur, some small and localized, others affecting several countries and many thousands of people,” writes Bob Hansford, disaster risk management advisor at Tearfund, a Christian relief and development agency.

Disaster often recur in the same place – annually or with a gap of some years.  In 2009, tropical storm Ondoy pounded Metro Manila and its surrounding areas.  This year, Metro Manila and its neighboring places were under water again.

In his article, “Managing disaster and building safer communities,” Hansford talk about the four things that happen when a disaster strikes: emergency response, rehabilitation, mitigation, and preparation.

“In the first few days and weeks after a disaster, there is a need for search and rescue, medical care, food, water, sanitation and shelter, as well as emotional support,” explains on what an emergency response is.

Rehabilitation comes next.  “As the weeks pas, houses need to be repaired, water supplies restored, and livelihoods re-instated,” Hansford says.  “Rehabilitation is often called recovery.”

Mitigation is closely linked to rehabilitation.  Examples include: stronger or raised houses, water pumps on raised platforms, alternative crops to cope better with flood or drought.  “Mitigation activities help to ‘build back better,’ making the community more resistant to future hazards,” he says.

Preparation is getting ready for the next disaster that comes.  For a storm or flood, it means establishing a warning system, setting aside food or water stocks, making ready an evacuation center or training volunteers.

In the Philippines, floods have become a common occurrence.  It is not only Metro Manila that suffers from flooding but other provinces as well.  What can be done to save lives? “In the event of a disaster, warning communities can make the difference between life and death,” the Tearfund said.

In “Disasters and the Local Church,” authors Bill Crooks and Jackie Mouradian shares some examples of early warning systems: depth market posts, rope and belts, lookouts, and raising the alarm.

In some countries, communities place a series of bamboo poles in a river, with depth marks (as on a ruler) along the pole.  Three colors are often used: green at the bottom, meaning “safe”; yellow in the middle, for alert level; and red nearer the top, which means “danger.”

“The color gives an indication of how quickly the water is rising,” Crooks and Mouradian points out.  “During heavy rain, some community members should be given the task of monitoring the water level and warming the community if the water reaches the danger level.”

Rope and bells is common in the Philippines but not often used.  In this method, ropes are tied over the rivers, with flags and small bells attached.  If the river level rises, the bells ring, alerting people to the imminent danger.

In some parts of Afghanistan, during the flash flood season a community will send young men to herd goats in the high hills and watch for surges of water in the stream bed.  “If the lookout sees the water rising quickly, he will alert the community through firing an air rifle, blowing a horn, or another signal that can be heard over long distances,” the two authors write.

What should the people do once the water level has reached the critical stage?  “Once the water has risen above the danger level, all members of the community must be alerted, and those in danger must be asked to move to higher ground,” said Crooks and Mouradian.

Many communities have developed ways of passing on warnings including using church bells, mosque loudspeakers, mobile phones, gongs and megaphones (carried by volunteers on bicycles).

In flash floods, the water rises very quickly.  “Where mobile phones are working, messages can be passed by mobile from upstream to downstream locations, alerting people to approaching floods,” Crooks and Mouradian suggest.

What about landslides, another common occurrence during heavy rains?  They happen when the soil on a slope become unstable, and quantities of soil, mud and rock start to move down the slope.  They cause serious damage and are difficult to predict.

The Tearfund publication shares this tip on what to do during landslides: In high-risk areas, volunteer teams can check for earth movement during periods of heavy rainfall and be prepared to give warnings to people if a landslide is starting.

In addition, appropriate tools should be kept accessible to dig out casualties, plus First Aid materials.  A school, church, or other public building can become an evacuation center – pre-equipped with clean water and latrines.

“Disasters bring with them great challenges,” says Alice Keen, the Tearfund editor.  “Rescue, response, and recovery are followed by reconstruction and rebuilding lives.  But the work doesn’t stop there.  Reducing the risk of future disasters is the key to preventing the loss of more lives.”

The world’s weather has completely changed. Filipinos should not be complacent when it comes to disasters. Senator Loren Legarda, who chairs the Senate Committee on Climate Change, reminds us: “There will be many more typhoons, earthquakes and other natural hazards that will come our way. But, let us not be content in having beautiful systems for disaster response and relief. The challenge at hand is to do more and to do better in prevention and risk reduction.”