Innovation in Philippine disaster management: keeping up with the neighbours

A recent article in Nature concludes that the climate is changing faster than previously realised, placing the aspirational Paris Agreement limit of 1.5°C of warming at risk of being surpassed in a little over a decade. The authors warn that ‘The time for rapid adaptation has arrived.’

How can we prepare for a rapidly emerging era of severe weather and fires and rising seas? We could start by studying how countries that are already coping with frequent severe disasters are preparing.

The Philippines, one of the world’s most disaster-prone countries, is a good example. More than 60% of its land area is exposed to multiple hazards, and about 75% of the population is vulnerable to their impact. Over the past decade, it averaged 19 climate-related disasters each year, many fatalities and enormous economic costs. For most Filipinos, living with natural disasters has become a way of life.

The Philippine government began making some changes almost a decade ago with the passage of landmark legislation on disaster risk reduction and management. It’s now strengthening and consolidating those reforms in important new legislation expected to be approved later this year.

Its approach has three main features, each of which other countries will ultimately need to adopt as the planet warms.

The first is a shift in emphasis from reactive emergency response to one of reducing vulnerability and risk, leading to resilience.

Historically, governments globally have tended to invest mainly in early warning systems and response and emergency relief capacities, rather than proactively investing in reducing underlying vulnerabilities and exposure to hazards, such as by relocating exposed communities, strengthening land-use and building codes or enacting flood-control measures.

The Philippines began making the necessary shift nearly a decade ago. Before 2010, its main fund for managing disasters was used exclusively for reactive, quick disaster response. Today, 70% is mandated for initiatives in areas such as disaster risk reduction and prevention, and only 30% is available for relief and recovery programs. Filipino policymakers are also now considering requiring the allocation of a significant percentage of total government revenue to the fund each year.

Other countries, such as Australia and the US, have begun taking modest steps in the same direction. The Australian government’s new disaster recovery funding arrangements allow states to reinvest savings from federal disaster recovery funding into measures to reduce vulnerability to future disasters. In the US, in the wake of devastating hurricane seasons, bipartisan support is building for legislation that would allow as much as 6% of elements of the federal disaster relief fund to be used for mitigation. If those provisions had been in place during the major disasters that struck the US in 2017, more than $600 million would have become available for disaster risk reduction aimed at community and regional needs.

The second feature of the Philippines’ legislated changes is the establishment of a national structure to govern and accelerate the shift to prevention and resilience. Currently, local disaster risk management offices are required in every province, city and municipality. They contribute to the development of local risk reduction plans that are then incorporated in land-use and economic development plans. These plans are informed by and inform the development of the national disaster management plan, which is overseen by the Office of Civil Defense in the Department of National Defense.

The pending legislation will further strengthen governance arrangements by transferring and elevating those responsibilities to a new, cabinet-level, Department of Disaster Resilience. The department will have the mandate, increased resources and authority to mainstream climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction in policy formulation, socioeconomic development planning, budgeting and governance across all agencies and levels of government.

The third emergent feature is the incorporation of explicit roles for key non-government stakeholders, such as the private sector and civil society organisations, in the national governance framework.

The Philippines’ National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, which is the relevant peak body, includes the cabinet-level heads of each major government department as well as permanent representatives from civil society, the Philippines Red Cross and the private sector. This is important because of the crucial role those non-government actors play in building community, regional and national resilience.

The private sector will also be called on to play a proponent role as part of these changes, given that it will make trillions of dollars of new investments in hazard-prone areas in the decades ahead. How it considers and manages capital investments, supply chains and operations will be a decisive factor in reducing overall exposure to disaster risk.

Similarly, civil society organisations make unique contributions to the development of frameworks, standards and plans for disaster risk reduction when they help to implement local, national, regional and global plans and strategies. They’re also active in supporting public awareness, encouraging a culture of prevention and education on disaster risk, and advocating for resilient communities and an inclusive, all-of-society approach to disaster risk management.

These steps by the Philippine government to build resilience to climate change aren’t perfect. A recent review by the Philippines Commission on Audit has noted that, while the plans are solid, there are ‘significant question marks’ concerning their implementation, in terms of ‘both … the funding that must be made available to support the implementation and the consistency in approach to be taken throughout all levels of government’.

Nevertheless, they’re innovative and appropriate to the changing threat and foreshadow the shifts many more countries will need to make as the frequency and intensity of natural hazards increases. Many countries, including Australia, that recognise the need to address disaster mitigation challenges will observe the Philippines’ innovation with interest. Should we emulate the innovation shown by our Indo-Pacific neighbour?