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An act of God

By Christian Cardiente | Oct. 08, 2011 at 12:05am
by Karl Allan Barlaan and Christian Cardiente

President Benigno Aquino III has been at the receiving end of criticisms after typhoons Pedring and Quiel hit and left many parts of Metro Manila, Central and Northern Luzon in a state of calamity. After the last gust of wind had blown, damages soared to nearly P10 billion and the death toll rose to 26 with almost three million people in 34 provinces affected or displaced.

But even as some parts of Bulacan, Pangasinan, Pampanga, and Nueva Ecija remained inundated in flood waters days after the Pedring hit, Mr. Aquino took all of five days to convene the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council and a full week before personally overseeing relief distribution—after he had attended the Asean 100 Leadership Forum and the 30th anniversary celebrations of McDonald’s Philippines on 29 and 30 September respectively.

The delay did not go unnoticed.

The opposition called the government’s calamity response “insensitive, indifferent, and slow.” Palace ally House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. urged the President to visit the typhoon victims “to boost their morale.” The Internet was abuzz with a newly-coined word, “noynoying.” The word translates to “procrastinating,” members of a UP Diliman alumni social networking group say.

An unpublished document, awaiting presidential approval for the past five months, seems to confirm the criticism: Mr. Aquino has been procrastinating not only on disaster risk reduction and management, but on climate change adaptation as a whole.

The document comes from the Climate Change Commission, an independent and autonomous body (with) the same status as that of a national government agency attached to the Office of the President, created by law under Republic Act 9729 or the Climate Change Act 0f 2009. The technical report—122 pages (47 pages of body including bibliographies, and 75 pages of annexes)–is the final draft of the National Climate Change Action Plan (NCCAP): 2011-2028, which according to the same law should have been finalized in April 2011.

The Plan was the product of more than a year’s study, research, and grassroots consultation by the Commission, jointly undertaken with representatives from various line agencies: the Departments of Agriculture, Energy, Environment and Natural Resources, Education, Foreign Affairs, Health, Interior and Local Government, National Defense, Public Works and Highways, Social Welfare Development, Trade and Industry, Transportation and Communications; National Economic and Development Authority. It was drafted in collaboration with various special government bodies, local government leagues, and the private sector: the National Security Council, National Commission on the Role of Filipino Women, League of Provinces, League of Cities, League of Municipalities, Liga ng mga Barangay, the academe, business sector, and nongovernmental organizations. The conduct of the study was also guided by a “national panel of technical experts.”

The document is supposedly “under review.” An inquiry, however, by the Manila Standard Today with the Office of the Executive Secretary as to the status of the “review” and the identity of the “experts” undertaking it, yielded no response.

But even a layman’s scrutiny of the Plan would produce the same conclusion: its timely implementation would have drastically reduced damages sustained from both Pedring and Quiel.

While it covers a broad range of strategic priorities—food security, water sufficiency, ecosystem and environmental stability, human security, climate-smart industries and services, sustainable energy, knowledge and capacity development—a lot of the specific observations and recommendations within the Plan was implementable within the five-month period preceding the two typhoons.

On “Human Security,” the NCCAP “provides key strategic actions that give importance to coordinated efforts on disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation to minimize the threats to human security.”

While affected sectors lament the national government’s response time, the Plan had already emphasized on capability-building and quick-response measures as follows: “organizing and mobilizing national and local disaster management networks; training health professional and community workers through customized programs and integration of climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction and management in the health curricula; implementation of community-based monitoring and surveillance system for climate change-sensitive diseases; and an intensified information and education campaign for better population management in times of resettlement.”

Some national and local offices may already be implementing the said measures—arguably not with the same systematic and orchestrated approach; inarguably, without the force of law and presidential imprimatur as the Climate Change Act of 2009 had intended.

But while the same law mandates that the President as chairman convenes the commission quarterly, he has not. Senator Loren Legarda, chairman of the Senate committee on climate change and principal author of the Climate Change Act, on three separate instances (April, July, and September 2011), appealed for the President to convene the body. He did not.

Further, it took both the combined might of Pedring and Quiel for the President to appoint a “water czar” –Public Works Secretary Rogelio Singson–in the interim while the NEDA supposedly “formulates plans for the creation of a ‘super-body’ that will coordinate the functions of various government agencies involved in water.”

The decision came after the National Power Corporation’s complaint that the National Water Resources Board (NWRB) did not approve its request to release water from Angat Dam before Pedring struck Luzon. It came after 6 dams in Luzon–San Roque, Angat, Ipo, Ambuklao, Binga, and Magat–once more became the object of criticisms relevant to “flood-control protocols.”

Ironically, while the action came belatedly, the warning, in both general and specific terms, had been gathering dust atop his desk for the last five months. “Protection of vital water resources is weak, access to financing to protect supply and improve distribution is low, performance of water service provides is low, and support to rural water planning and infrastructures is inadequate... (Ondoy and Pepeng) have demonstrated that current water infrastructures and disaster management systems in the country cannot satisfactorily cope with extreme climate variability,” warns the report.

Months before the government realized the need for a “water czar,” the paper wrote: “The (water) sector’s inability to respond to issues is rooted in the fragmented and weak institutional and water governance environment. Currently, water management is lodged in over 30 government offices, with the National Water Resources Board limited to economic regulation, while the management of water resources (including watersheds), supply and distribution is taken on different agencies. As a consequence, there is uncoordinated sector planning and monitoring in the absence of a national government agency responsible for translating policies and strategies into a comprehensive water-climate change program.”

“With no climate-proofing of water infrastructures, the Philippines will continue to spend a large proportion of its meager resources on relief and rehabilitation efforts,” it accurately predicts.

But while the President has procrastinated on the approval and implementation of the NCCAP as a whole, he has however, approved in essence, some of its recommendations. The Executive’s proposed national budget for 2012, approved by the House of Representatives on third reading, allocates P61 million for the Climate Change Commission. In part, the amount is earmarked for the establishment of “eco-towns” proposed in the NCCAP.

An “ecologically stable and economically resilient town” or “eco-town,” according to the NCCAP is a “planning unit composed of municipalities or a group of municipalities located within and in the boundaries of critical key biodiversity areas, highly vulnerable to climate change risks...”

Curiously, while the Plan cites “Cagayan Valley, Pangasinan, Isabela, Nueva Ecija, Iloilo, and Camarines Sur” as “exposed to greater risks of flooding and typhoons,” it was announced last month that first eco-town would instead be established in Surigao del Norte—from where Aquino-appointed CCC Vice Chairperson Mary Ann Lucille Sering hails.
According to the Commission’s budget, the amount of P2.5 million will be allocated for each eco-town. Ten eco-towns will be established annually totalling P25 million per fiscal year—or more than 40 percent of the Commission’s budget—an excess, especially for a program, which insiders claim, is already being undertaken by the Environment Department and the Protected Areas Management Board in each of the protected areas covered by the National Integrated Protected Areas System law.

Already “excessive” for some, P2.5 million is not all these eco-towns will be receiving. They will also be beneficiaries to the government’s dole program. “The package of assistance will require a poverty reduction scheme through an expanded conditional cash transfer, i.e., CCT plus climate change adaptation or CCT+, which provides immediate income to the poor within a target ecosystems based on certain conditions,” according to the NCCAP.

Objections notwithstanding, ultimately, it is the President who will decide which plans and proposals to approve or disapprove; which recommendations to adopt or not, which warnings to heed or ignore, in full or in part. He will determine how funds should be allocated. With or without a comprehensive plan for either climate change or disaster preparedness, his to spend as he wishes, is the “calamity fund” of P19.2 billion—bigger than former President Gloria Arroyo’s P18.6 billion for all her nine years in office.

His are god-like powers of action or inaction. And in failure, the President’s spokespersons may again invoke force majeure—“an act of God”—for which he is not to blame. All of the powers, none of the responsibilities.
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