Term of office, political boundaries play role in flawed disaster planning, says expert

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One of the problems in the country’s disaster planning is that local governments’ outlook tends to be limited to officials’ term of office instead of spanning decades, an environmental planner says.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, November 12) —Typhoons which prompt forced evacuations, wreck homes and result in casualties are a recurring story in the Philippines.

But past disasters such as Typhoon Ondoy, which killed over 400 people in 2009; or Typhoon Yolanda, which left more than 6,000 people dead in 2013, should be more than just stories of resilience. These are cautionary tales which call for improvements in the country’s disaster planning, experts said.

“The problem really is the lack of planning, because we know that it will happen every year,” environmental planner Paulo Alcazaren told CNN Philippines on Thursday.

On Wednesday night, Typhoon Ulysses (international name: Vamco) made landfall causing massive flooding in several areas in Luzon. Houses were submerged, power lines were downed, and several residents have appealed for rescue.

READ: Typhoon Ulysses kills at least 13, leaves 15 missing

Damage such as these could have been minimized if long-term disaster planning which spans decades has been prioritized, Alcazaren said.

“Usually, the planning outlook is 20, 30 years,” he said. “‘Yan ang problema natin dahil ‘yung mga outlook natin (That’s the problem because our outlook) is fixed usually by political term which is three years for towns and cities.”

“Our problems now came from what we did not do 30 years ago, what we did not do 60 years ago,” he added.

Because of this short-sightedness, Alcazaren said the country seems to always be just “catching up with the situation” once the damage has been done.

RELATED: Civil defense official denies gov’t caught flat-footed in ‘Ulysses’ response

He also pointed as a contributing factor to deficient planning the seeming lack of coordination among neighboring local government units, and "political boundaries" which are incongruent to environmental ones.

“I was in a workshop for Antique but the problem of downstream was in the next province, and they could not solve anything because they could not step over the provincial line,” he shared. “So you have to approach these problems really within a regional planning context.”

In a separate interview, Mahar Lagmay, executive director of the University of the Philippines Resilience Institute, also stressed that planning involves investing in technologies that could help better identify potential risks beyond what are shown in historical records.

It is not simply preparing evacuation sites, but should cut across all sectors, he said.

“Malawakang trabaho po ito at kailangan malawakan din ang edukasyon bukod sa anticipatory planning,” Lagmay said, noting that it is better to err on the side of caution by “anticipating the unexpected.”

[Translation: This is extensive work that includes extensive education on top of anticipatory planning.]

Lagmay added it is imperative that authorities focus on a people-centered early warning system that would instill in the public “a culture of safety” wherein they act from a place of understanding of the risks, as opposed to just following orders from authorities.