The fourth in the month of November, typhoon “Ulysses” was aptly named. Like the hero of Homer’s Odyssey, it meandered through a vast expanse of land and sea. Its broad rain band deluged almost a third of the Philippine archipelago, and as it crossed Luzon its winds destroyed crops and left entire provinces and regions in ruins, while the floods its waters brought cost thousands their homes and belongings and even took the lives of, at the latest count, 73 Filipinos. 

Whether flood, earthquake, fire, or volcanic eruption, every disaster swells the ranks of the poor and makes the already needy even more destitute. Typhoon Ulysses was even more devastating than its predecessors in the number of deaths it left behind, its adding to the numbers of the poor in these islands, and making the already desperate straits of thousands even worse. 

It left little doubt that the lives of hundreds of thousands have been devastated by its power. But it is not only the destruction it wrought and how this or that government agency claims to be responding to it that should occupy the populace in its aftermath. As the fourth typhoon to smash into the Philippines during this month of uncertainty, Ulysses and its severe weather antecedents are another wake-up call among many others for government to address the urgent  need to improve its disaster preparedness beyond rescuing survivors, counting the dead, and enumerating how many are in evacuation  centers and receiving food packs.

Even more urgent is cutting the number of casualties and limiting the economic consequences of calamities by proactively making sure that there will be fewer or no deaths the next time, and that the livelihoods and property of the populace are protected enough so fewer survivors add to the already burgeoning legions of  Philippine poor.

There have indeed been other reminders of the urgency of that need. There was typhoon “Ondoy” in 2009. Last year six earthquakes and two mega-typhoons cost the Philippines hundreds of deaths and the loss of billions in the agricultural sector and in infrastructure damage. Thousands became poor and poorer from those catastrophes, and added their number to the already huge total of Filipinos — estimated at some 21.9 million — already in dire need. 

These catastrophes won’t be the last. It is not only because the Philippines is home to 24 active volcanoes and is in the Pacific Right of Fire, but also because of the increasing frequency of typhoons’ making landfall and their growing intensity that global warming is generating.

In 2017 the government’s own National Anti-Poverty Commission (NAPC) warned  that from 50 to 60 million more people could be suddenly impoverished by the loss of employment, the death of a breadwinner, a serious and costly illness, or — as the next months after typhoons Rolly, Siony, Tonyo and Ulysses will be demonstrating — the vagaries of nature. 

Some of these perils can be mitigated by sound public policy. The impact on families of the sudden loss of employment many have experienced because of the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, could have been eased by government aid, but that supposed policy has been erratically implemented, with thousands complaining  that they have not received the promised assistance.  In addition to that predicament is the loss of homes and belongings from flooding that has mostly afflicted the poor and disadvantaged.

Sound public policies can help prevent the economic and social catastrophes that further impoverish the poor. But natural disasters cannot be prevented and are a fact of existence in this country. The Philippines is ninth in the world among the countries most at risk from natural disasters. Not only is 70 percent of its population likely to lose homes, crops, kin and even their own lives to them. It is also among the most likely, as Ulysses and company have proven, to suffer the effects of global warming. But even more powerful typhoons will endanger the population, say climatologists, and parts of the Philippine landmass if not all of it can even go underwater as the polar icecaps melt and sea levels rise.

That global warming can be remedied only by the worst polluter countries’ reining in the greed of their corporations, their consumption of fossil fuels and their use of coal does not mean that nothing can be done by countries like the Philippines that do not have the same economic power as China and the US. Their impact on people’s lives and society as a whole  can be mitigated by a coherent, well thought-out national disaster mitigation plan.  

Such a plan can be crafted only by an interdisciplinary, multi-sectoral commission of environmentalists, climatologists, hydrologists, communication specialists, economists, social welfare experts, political scientists, engineers, and other authorities in their respective fields. 

If it is to succeed, the commission cannot be composed of ineffectual bureaucrats in office solely for their services, closeness to, and collaboration with power. It is equally necessary to provide sufficient funds not only to enable government to provide disaster victims assistance but also to allow the commission to complete  and implement its disaster mitigation strategy. 

That strategy could include the construction of the permanent, earthquake- and flood-proof evacuation centers that have long been proposed by climatologists in the country’s most disaster-prone areas such as Eastern Luzon, the Bicol region, Eastern Samar, and Leyte. Levees and dikes could also be erected along the country’s major rivers, those rivers dredged, and a system of offshore water gates to mitigate the impact of storm surges built.

Environmentally destructive activities such as logging and quarrying should be stopped. Government infrastructure projects like dam-building in critical areas must be abandoned, and raising the capacity of existing dams seriously considered. Because information is vital during emergencies — some residents in affected areas complain that they had no access to free TV and radio and were therefore unprepared when Ulysses smashed into their communities — the commission should recommend, and work for, the reorientation of government policy away from its present anti-free expression and press freedom focus to the protection of those rights.

Rather than spend millions on such Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) follies as the crushed dolomite beach project in Manila Bay, as proposed by the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute (UP-MSI), the Bay periphery could be planted to mangrove to rejuvenate its waters and  help reduce the impact of the storm surges that usually flood Manila’s, Batangas’, Cavite’s and other areas’ shorelines.

The country can no longer afford the reactive, patchwork, often delayed and limited response of government. The number and increasing power of the calamities that struck the country this year and their undeniably widespread impact should provide proof enough of both the inadequacy of the PhP 15 billion disaster response budget for 2020, and of  the need for a proactive response to the Philippine manifestations of the global warming threat to all of humanity.

In recognition of their all too obvious limitations, the officials of this government can best serve the nation by engaging experts in the tasks of disaster mitigation and in developing a comprehensive national plan to address calamities.  They can also funnel to its crafting and implementation the trillions in locally-sourced funds and the billions in foreign aid and loans that every year are dissipated on infrastructure and other projects that are of little benefit to the people. Ulysses’ wake-up call shall have then served its purpose.

Also published in BusinessWorld. Photo from PCOO.

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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