How ready are we to manage disasters?

A recent report from the World Meteorological Organization warned that global temperatures are expected to rise to record levels in the next five years, triggered by greenhouse gases and the recurring El Niño.

With the current hot weather already a bane to many, and occasional thundershowers offering temporary relief, the scenario in the not-too-distant future looms as a threat more than a warning, as the chances of having the hottest days on record within five years appear to be a dead certain reality.

“A warming El Niño is expected to develop in the coming months, and this will combine with human-induced climate change to push global temperatures into uncharted territory,” said WMO Secretary-General Pro. Peterri Taalas. “This will have far-reaching repercussions for health, food security, water management, and the environment. We need to be prepared.”

Despite the grim announcement, Taalas offers a ray of hope. We still have time to prevent the inevitable from happening; he provides to soothe doomsayers. This is not an impossible situation and is not irreversible, he adds.

Strengthening weather and climate services to protect people from extreme weather conditions and new greenhouse gas monitoring will be on top of the agenda of matters to be discussed during the forthcoming WMO Conference scheduled from 22 May to 2 June.

For our part, how ready are we to handle disasters of this sort? Are we equipped to face or institute disaster-reduction/mitigation efforts? There has been a lot of discussion on making a paradigm shift from reactive to proactive in the matter of responding to disasters, including floods, earthquakes, and droughts, among others. The government and the private sector have stressed that responses should be immediate and efficient, and emergency relief immediately followed by the rebuilding of destroyed houses or infrastructure or rehabilitation and livelihoods restored to the affected victims.

The World Conference on Disaster Reduction mapped out a framework from 2005-2015 that adopted “five priorities for action: 1. Ensure that disaster risk reduction is a national and local priority with a strong institutional basis for implementation; 2. Identify, assess and monitor disaster risks and enhance early warning; 3. Use knowledge, innovation, and education to build a culture of safety and resilience at all levels; 4. Reduce the underlying risk factors; and 5. Strengthen disaster preparedness for effective response at all levels.”

Considering that the Philippines ranks first in the world regarding risks associated with natural disasters and is “host” to an average of 20 typhoons annually, six of which are destructive according to a World Risk Index report, have we used these recommendations?

Only a few years ago, five Northern Luzon town mayors were facing charges in the Office of the Ombudsman after they were found missing from their posts as Typhoon Ompong ravaged most parts of the islands, causing deaths and destruction in the aftermath. Many victims of past calamities continue to live in makeshift dwellings as they cannot rebuild their homes far from their workplaces and schools for their children. There is a never-ending line of displaced people seeking food or ayuda and a mad scramble for the same caused by disorderly or ill-maintained distribution systems. Donations are being ripped off and do not go to the intended beneficiaries. Instead of being disaster-prepared, we react as if these calamities are happening for the first time.

In contrast, look at how neighboring Bangladesh, another developing nation in 6th place on the Global Risk Index, deals with the catastrophes that come their way. Its government has boosted community-focused risk reduction efforts, decentralized disaster management, developed partnerships, and enhanced community resilience by working together to reduce their vulnerability to the elements and participating in risk-reduction activities.

Our local government executives should look up to their Bangladesh counterparts and learn a thing or two, reviewing their original mandates and responsibilities to their constituents. Old systems that did not work must be discarded or restructured according to the needs of the times. And the time to act is now before it’s too late.

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