The devastation of Typhoon Yolanda: incompetence and failure of leadership in disaster risk management and addressing the climate change
Position Paper by the Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment presented at the public forum, entitled “On Earthquakes and Typhoons: A Scientific Discussion” hosted by the AGHAM-Advocates of Science & Technology for the People | 18 November 2013
Considered to be the world's strongest typhoon in recorded history, Typhoon Yolanda (international name Haiyan) brought maximum sustained winds of 315 kph and 15-20 feet storm surges across 41 provinces in the Southern Luzon, Visayas and Northern Mindanao regions. The Eastern Visayas region, particularly the provinces of Leyte and Samar, was the most devastated.
The National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC), reported that as of November 20, 2013, a total of 4,011 were killed, 18,557 were injured, and 1,602 remained missing. The NDRRMC death toll does not include the 1,172 bodies that were collected by special task force from November 16-19 in Tacloban City. Some estimated that the total economic lost because of the disaster ranges between $6.5 billion to $15 billion. Power and communication lines were still down five days after 'Yolanda' made its first landfall. It will take 3-6 months for the power to be fully operated in Eastern Visayas.
Typhoon Yolanda is fast becoming the quintessential cautionary tale of the threatening impacts of climate change. But, while the magnitude of the hazard is deemed unprecedented, the people cannot stop to wonder how the Aquino government has prepared the country for this calamity.
For years, now, we have learned that vulnerable countries, especially the Philippines, are in for dire straits with the new climate norm. The country has experienced Typhoon Ondoy and Pepeng in 2009, the Aquino government has also faced Typhoon Sendong, Gener and Pablo. The least the people expect is that the administration of Pres. Benigno Simeon Aquino III, have acquired vital lessons in dealing with extreme weather events and other climate change impacts. PAGASA scientists, after all, have served notice on the possible extent, nature and likely path of Typhoon Yolanda.
Yet, the devastation wrought by Typhoon Yolanda manifests the continuing failure of the Philippine government to adequately prepare the country for the worst challenges of climate change. While it possessed billions in its coffers, it hardly made a dent on proposals to make the country climate resilient. Malacanang's response was not matching the stern warnings of an unprecedented hazard. It has not learned any lesson from the decades and recent tragedies the country faced.
As early as November 6, the Joint Typhoon Warning Center (JTWC) has already classified[i] Typhoon Yolanda as a Category 5-equivalent super typhoon. By this time, the Project Nationwide Operational Assessment of Hazards (Project NOAH) has announced which provinces and municipalities will be affected by rainfall, and by November 7 have predicted storm surges ranging from 1.1-5.3 meters in height reaching the Samar and Leyte coasts.[ii] On the same day, President BS Aquino boasted through a live address on national television that the government is prepared and ready for Yolanda.
Aquino said he sent Department of Defense (DND) Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and Department of Interior and Local Government(DILG) Secretary Mar Roxas to oversee disaster response preparations, and said three C130's, 32 planes and helicopters, 20 vessels and 2,000 food packs were already in position to anticipate the impacts of Yolanda. But as Yolanda made its landfall on November 8, response efforts clearly went downhill as it failed to anticipate the strength of Yolanda's winds and storm surges despite ample warning, projection of impacts and pre-positioning of response machineries.
1. Communication lines were not secured for the world’s strongest typhoon.
The communication infrastructures were significantly damaged rendering majority of the areas in the Eastern Visayas region cut off from the nation. The communication lines were restored in major cities and urban areas only three days after the storm. Malacanang obviously did not anticipate this scenario, as its lines with its advanced party to the Typhoon impact areas were also cut off. They did not seem to have ensured access to satellite phones, much less the local governments which they expected to take charge of relief work on the ground. Major agencies and local government were not advised to set up the traditional but reliable and tested Ultra High Frequency (UHF) radio communication.
2. Evacuation facilities and plan did not factor the magnitude and nature of the hazard.
The national government obviously failed to see this scenario, as it failed to mobilize the country's experts and the people to appropriately prepare for the hazard and develop corresponding back up plans.
The evacuation made a day before the typhoon struck was concentrated to move coastal residents to evacuation centers. This is inconsistent with the assessment and prediction of government weather agencies that the typhoon will cause deadly storm surges and the fact that they are aware that the topographical characteristics of urban and town centers in Leyte and Samar like Tacloban City are very dangerously exposed to such hazards. The government could have ordered a massive evacuation of the population in Tacloban City and other town centers and not only of the coastal communities.
The evacuated people were sheltered in schools, basketball gyms, health centers which have been the tradional 'evacuation centers' even as these facilities were in disaster-prone areas or were not structurally designed and built to serve as evacuation centers and weather impacts of possible storm surges of 5-meter in
Given the lack of foresight or preparation for storm surges, no plan or mechanism to conduct rescue missions during and after the storm surges in the heavy populated Tacloban City were made. Civilians and even police and military personnel were affected or killed by the sudden storm surges in Tacloban City. Even these state personnel who should be the frontline responders to the disaster were not warned or prepared for the eventual killer floods caused by storm surges.
3. The government’s emergency response systems are greatly wanting and betrays a lack of leadership on the part of the Aquino government.
For a country that has been dealing with an average of 18-20 typhoons a year, it is pathetic to see the government's relief operation in Typhoon Yolanda. As food and other aid accumulated in different stockpiles in Tacloban, it was not getting down to the sea of hungry and desperate survivors who then had to resort to outright accessing them to tide their basic needs. The same has been witnessed in Typhoon Pablo in Mindanao early this year and each time, the people are blamed for this human instinct to survive, which has been simply labelled as 'looting'.
Not only did the government bungle the relief operations it earlier boasted as already in place, it was obviously inadequate. A week after the tragedy, there is still no significant relief operation done by the Aquino government. Concerned organizations, private institutions and international humanitarian groups have been the first to immediately and systematically provide food and medical assistance to the survivors. The scarcity of food and safe drinking water is still prevalent not only in Tacloban City but also in the affected areas in Eastern Visayas as well as other provinces hit by Yolanda like Palawan, Mindoro Occidental, Mindoro Oriental, Capiz, Iloilo and Antique.
President BS Aquino promised P23 billion worth of 'disaster pork' contingency funds, but many were quick to notice that the slow and seemingly low-scale relief operations of government agencies were disproportionate to the sum. The Aquino government, obviously, is not yet done with "pork." The slow pace and inadequate release of disaster funds betrays a corrupted system or motives to profit from the disaster. While disasters have been a convenient justification for lump sum appropriations in the National Budget, scenarios as in Yolanda's aftermath beg answers to people's questions about where do funds really go.
Such may have also affected donor confidence on disaster response appeals of the Philippine government. The Department of Foreign Affairs recently issued a statement[iii] that only Indonesia's $2 million pledge, out of the $89.50 million international assistances pledged by different countries have been coursed through the national government.
Meanwhile, President BS Aquino was again nowhere seen nor heard leading the country at this critical juncture, much like during the MNLF's siege of Zamboanga. While seen distributing bottled water, and heard blaming the local government, he has not been reported mobilizing institutions, both public and private, to collaborate in addressing the emergency situation. The President who prides itself of getting popular support, in spite criticisms on the pork barrel fund, needed no emergency powers to do this.
The political bickering between BS Aquino's national government and the local government led by the Romualdez clan in Leyte aggravated the situation. Instead of putting politics aside to assist the people in these hard times, he had to harp on his local bureaucrats in front of international media.
Effective infrastructure and mechanisms to efficiently and speedily deliver whatever relief and emergency services the government had were lacking. That major communication and transportation facilities and infrastructure were not controlled and directed by the government became an apparent problem once relief delivery had to be stepped up but had to be 'begged' from the companies. The mobilization of assets and resources like aircraft, ships and energy barges in times of national emergency lies primarily to the whims of the private sector.
Dead bodies were not immediately recovered and buried. The numerous cadavers that remain uncollected can pose health and sanitary risk in devastated areas such as Tacloban City.
Instead of owning up to the failure of the national government, who is precisely mandated by law to lead disaster response operations in an extreme weather event of this scale, BS Aquino falsely projected that the situation is under control, downplayed the number of deaths, and hyped that the devastation is a natural
disaster that cannot be escaped with.
This exposed not only the lack of leadership of BS Aquino but also revealed his incompetence and arrogance in handling national calamities.
4. Long term climate proofing measures were all tokenisms.
The Philippines was reported by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters as the most disaster-affected country in 2012 with 2,360 deaths[iv]
and declared by the German Watch's 2013 global climate risk index as the fourth most vulnerable country in the world. This only affirms that we are now experiencing the growing strength and frequency of extreme weather events, the affected irrigation and productivity of agriculture, dwindling biodiversity and forest health, increasing water scarcity and worsening climate-related epidemics and other health impacts.
But despite this chronic situation of disaster and climate vulnerability, no sufficient disaster risk-reduction and climate-proofing measures are seen to be implemented across the country's hazardous and climate-sensitive areas.
We are seeing various allocations for disaster risk management and climate change peppered throughout the national budget, such as the DILG's Local Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Fund (LDDRMF), but we are seeing no clear, transparent and effective implementation and results, whether in the form of appropriate early warning systems on the ground, local engineering projects, community capacity building or natural resource management. Though the P1-billion People's Survival Fund for climate adaptation has been installed by law, it is still non-operational and may likely suffer the same problem of lack of transparency and accountability and corruption.
Meanwhile, the P23 billion 'disaster pork' funds that Aquino boasted about is a reactive, myopic and corruptionprone response system to the growing strength and frequency of extreme weather events and other climate change impacts. The discretionary nature of these calamity funds is being used to further the government's system of patronage and an opportunity to pocket people's money. It is precisely the pork barrel system, such as the Priority Development Assistance Funds (PDAF) of Congress, which the Supreme Court declared as unconstitutional, and the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) and various other presidential pork funds, that diverts public money towards discretionary lump-sum funds used for political patronage and self-enrichment.
5. Continued pursuit of destructive programs and policies are digging people’s graves.
How the Aquino government can be blinded by illusory promises of revenues, and not see that environmentally destructive and pollutive policies run counter to disaster and climate change laws deserves explanation. Impacts of these program are exacerbating the country's vulnerability to impacts of supertyphoons like Typhoon Yolanda. Natural defences from the strong winds and storm surges such as forests and mangroves have dwindled due to extractive industries and other forms of development aggression.
A 2009 land cover map project[v] of Leyte Island showed that its mangrove forests cover only 0.9 per cent or 6,567.31 hectares of the total land area. According to the Ocean Health Index, mangroves can absorb 70 to 90 percent of the energy of a normal wave[vi], which would have made it an ideal natural defence against storm
surges, on top of providing fisheries and other ecosystem functions to the community. Unfortunately, mangrove cover in the Philippines continues to dwindle from its original 500,000-hectare cover to 100,000 hectares, largely due to coastal development, land conversion and reclamation.[vii]
The existing policy regime over our environment and natural resources promotes the rapid, export-oriented and unchecked appropriation of resources. Laws such as the Mining Act of 1995, and the Revised Forestry Code of 1975 as well as programs like the National Reclamation Plan, and the coal plant projects of the Philippine Energy Plan runs counter to the goals of the Climate Change Act of 2009 and the Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act of 2010. The latter two laws, though desiring to address the country's vulnerability to disasters are inadequately funded, lacking in teeth or are not being implemented.
6. The hardest-hit provinces are also the poorest ones with little or no capacity.
Poverty is a key function of a community‟s vulnerability to disaster and climate change impacts – the socioeconomic capacities of a family is what largely determines their ability to overcome the impacts.
A study[viii] by the Manila Observatory revealed that 40-50 percent of the populations of Masbate, Northern Samar and Bohol are considered poor. Also in the path of Yolanda were other high-poverty incidence provinces such as Eastern Samar, Leyte, Romblon, Mindoro, Marinduque, Aklan and Bicol. Already grappling with the challenges of poverty, the poor in these provinces are hit the hardest and may very well be unable to recover in time for the next disaster they will face.
The long and short of Pres. BS Aquino's 'Aquinomics' is that it has promoted exclusive economic growth, as the increased revenues generated by the government has not trickled to social services and employment. According to research group Ibon Foundation[ix], the liberalization of agriculture, from which majority of the
Filipino people get their subsistence and livelihood, resulted in greater rural poverty.
Ever since the Philippines entered the World Trade Organization (WTO) and its regime of opening up our largely agrarian economy to foreign domination in 1995, some 693,000 jobs in a griculture were lost in the regions of Davao, Bicol, Caraga, Eastern Visayas and Northern Mindanao. Likewise, wages of farm workers and the share of agriculture in the national economy dropped and the poverty incidence in these rural areas has risen since then.
Three years of disaster crises is enough.
The current policies and programs of BS Aquino's administration to address climate change have proven to be an epic failure in the face of the ever deepening environmental crisis. It may be an unspoken addition to Climate Commissioner Yeb Sano's, the country's lead climate negotiator at the 19th Conference of Parties (COP) Climate Talks, lamentation, as he addressed the plenary in the opening of the negotiations when he said that the climate crisis is madness that must be stopped.
The bungled disaster response by the government exposes a comprehensively lacking disaster risk management master plan, across the phases of disaster prevention and mitigation, disaster preparedness and response, and disaster rehabilitation and recovery. A lack of sufficient budget and functional mechanisms to implement disaster risk management and climate adaptation was brought about by persisting poverty, corruption, and state abandonment of its mandate to ensure climate-resiliency across all communities in PH.
This has been the story of BS Aquino's governance for the past three years: year in and out, hundreds of billions of pesos in damages to infrastructure and livelihood, thousands of lives are lost and millions are adversely affected as politicians from the local governments up to the President himself continue to coddle environmentally destructive projects, pilfer public coffers, and condemn their constituents to chronic poverty and its consequent vulnerability.
In this light, the Kalikasan People's Network for the Environment calls for immediate action on the following points:
- We call on the people to continue to offer all forms of support for the relief and rehabilitation of the victims in in the Visayas and Southern Luzon to facilitate their speedy recovery;
- We call for an audit of climate change and disaster-related policies such as the Climate Change Act of 2009 and its National Climate Change Action Plan (NCCAP), and the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act of 2010 and the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Plan (NDRRMP) 2011-2028;
- We push for the thorough-going implementation of a comprehensive and pro-active disaster riskreduction and management plan that follows, and does not only pay lip service to, the goals of community-based disaster risk reduction and management, climate change adaptation and climate justice;
- We call for the immediate scrapping of destructive and pollutive policies that run diametrically opposed to climate change and disaster laws, especially those that have track records of worsening disaster and climate risks and vulnerabilities, and contributing to greater greenhouse gas emissions such as the Mining Act of 1995 and Executive Order 79, National Reclamation Plan, Fisheries Code of 1998, the Forestry Code of 1975, and the Electric Power Industry Reform Act of 2001, among others;
- We condemn the justification of pork barrel systems such as the DAP and other presidential pork funds as a contingency fund for disasters for its promotions of a reactive disaster management program, noting its role in promoting selective relief delivery and in serving as a smokescreen for the corruption and the malversation of funds due to its discretionary, lump-sum and unaccountable nature, and as such call for the abolition of all forms of pork barrel funds;
- We call on the public to ensure that the Aquino administration be held accountable for its negligence in the face of worsening extreme weather events. We should not falter in our quest for national leadership that is responsible and effective in leading us in times of national emergency and disasters. Much more,so we should unceasingly strive to have a government that shall put the interest of the people, the country and the environment at the core of its governance.###
[i] Prognostic Reasoning for Super Typhoon 31W (Haiyan) Nr 14 (Report). Joint Typhoon Warning Center, United States Navy. November 6, 2013. Archived from the original on November 7, 2013. Retrieved November 8, 2013.