Pass Disaster Resiliency bill now!

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Phivolcs not an NDRRMC member
IF there’s any big lesson from the Taal Volcano eruption, and the continuing threat of a bigger one, it is this: Congress must pass asap the Disaster Resiliency bill that President Duterte endorsed in his State of the Nation Address (SONA) last July. Duterte’s words in that SONA seem a bit prescient now:

“I am calling on Congress to expeditiously craft a law establishing a new authority or department that is responsive to the prevailing 21st-century conditions and empowered to best deliver an enhanced disaster resiliency and quick disaster response.”

The utter failure of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) to issue an emergency alarm in the early hours of January 12, which I wrote about last Monday, is just one symptom that this entity is so unwieldy and has little authority to confront what has been our country’s geological bad luck.

We are in the so-called “Ring of Fire (its scientific term, the Circum-Pacific Belt), a major area in the bottom of the Pacific Ocean characterized by active volcanoes and frequent earthquakes. The majority of the earth’s volcanoes and earthquakes take place along the Ring of Fire. We are also smack in the path of typhoons generated in the Pacific Ocean, that a 2006 United States government study concluded that our country is the worst hit by this terrifying natural phenomenon, in terms of both frequency of occurrence and extent of destruction.

With natural disasters so obviously the biggest, really inescapable, threat to our people, guess what has been the state agency assigned to tackle this?

A committee, glorified as a “council,” or the NDRRMC, consisting supposedly of 40 heads of government institutions that includes nearly all departments and even the “president of the Liga ng mga Barangay.” And as happens in such committees, the heads of the institutions attend its first inaugural meeting. Later, the ranks of those attending become lower and lower, that the council is unable to make any major decision.

Quite strangely and a huge oversight of the 2010 law creating the NDRRMC, the two agencies that could tell it that a natural disaster is looming in the horizon and it should prepare for it — the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (Pagasa) and the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) — are not members the council. While 15 department secretaries are in the NDRRMC, the Science and Technology department secretary who supervises these two forecasting agencies is not a member of the NDRRMC.

I suspect this could be the reason why the NDRRMC didn’t issue an alarm on January 12 that Taal was on the way to a major eruption.

Guess who officially chairs the NDRRMC? It is the Defense secretary who is one of the busiest department officials, what with a communist insurgency still alive, a huge modernization challenge prone to corruption, and the enforcement of our rights in our exclusive economic zones demanding his constant attention. I may be wrong, but I haven’t seen in TV news the face of this guy in charge of disaster management since the volcano erupted last January 12.

Civil defense
Guess who runs the NDRRMC on a daily basis? The Defense undersecretary in charge of the Department of National Defense’s Office of Civil Defense, a small agency that had actually been intended as the link between our military and the civilian population in all things involving our soldiers’ interaction with civilians, which in the past decades involved training and supervision of paramilitary units in conflict areas.

The current NDRRMC executive director is Ricardo Jalad, who I’m sure has been working his butt off to run this really weak institution. But when he retired, Jalad’s Army rank was that of a brigadier general, the lowest general rank. Jalad’s Army experience has been in anti-insurgency operations, leading battalions fighting communists and Islamic insurgents. He may be a man of integrity, but he just doesn’t have the stature nor experience in running a body tasked with such a huge, complex task as disaster management.

A proponent of the bill, Sen. Panfilo Lacson, has pointed out: “Five years after Republic Act 10121, known as the ‘Philippine Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act of 2010,’ was enacted, a special report prepared by the Commission on Audit in 2015 tells us that: ‘The government’s response and recovery efforts in Yolanda-ravaged areas already showed that the implementation of RA 10121 still leaves a lot to be desired,’’’ he said.

“The recorded below par performance was primarily attributed to the multi-sectoral, multi-organizational structure of the NDRRMC,’’ he explained.

“Experience tells us that creating a task force or an ad hoc body every time a disaster strikes is deemed ineffective and inefficient, especially now that scientists postulate that we are entering a time of climatic uncertainty, also tagged as the ‘new normal,’’’ he added.

The House of Representatives had passed the Disaster Resiliency bill last November, but the Senate has dilly-dallied on it.

Under the bill passed by the House, the entity in charge of confronting disasters will have the status and funding of a department, will also be headed by a secretary supported by undersecretaries, assistant secretaries and directors. Albay Second District Rep. José María Clemente “Joey” Salceda, one of the main proponents of the bill, said that the new department would need an initial budget of P10 billion from the national budget.

The new bill also adopted a “joint operational supervision” provision over four agencies vital to a Department of Disaster Resilience — which are Pagasa, Phivolcs, the Geo-Hazard Assessment and Engineering Geology Section of the Mines and Geosciences Bureau and the Bureau of Fire Protection — instead of making them attached agencies of the department.

Such an approach would be similar to that of another disaster-prone country, Japan, which has a minister for disaster management who runs the Disaster Management Bureau. The bureau acts as secretariat of the Disaster Management Council, which formulates and undertakes long-term plans to prepare for and confront disasters.

Countries classified as high-risk in disasters, such as Pakistan and India, have created strong institutions for disaster management. Why can’t we?



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