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Poor most vulnerable to disasters, ADB exec

By Jennifer Ambanta | Nov. 12, 2013 at 12:00am

THE Asia Development Bank said Monday the lack of disaster preparedness in the Philippines hurt poor families the most.

Vinod Thomas, director-general of independent evaluation at the ADB said super typhoon Yolanda “demonstrated terrifyingly” that many more Filipinos are now vulnerable to extreme storms and floods, as more people have moved into harm’s way in flood-prone areas in cities, low-lying coastlines, and uplands at risk from landslides.

“Socio-economic and demographic pressures are compounding this trend. Yolanda would have hit the poor hardest, but they have little capacity to deal with disaster risks,” Thomas said.

“The typhoon’s especially devastating impact on Tacloban City, which surrounds a bay at risk from storm surges, demonstrates the importance of location and vulnerability,” he added.

Thomas said people and communities across all income strata don’t have to be helpless victims of natural disasters, as recent experience of preparedness and response to calamities has shown.

“Typhoon Sendong in late 2011 caught people in Cagayan de Oro off guard because it hit a part of the southern Philippines not usually in the path of typhoons. But it spurred better disaster awareness in thatcity and far fewer lives were lost when Typhoon Pablo hit a year later,” Thomas said.

Asia is at the sharp end of a global increase in natural disasters, most of them floods and storms, which have risen fourfold in the last decade compared with the 1970s, he said. In the Philippines, rainfall is rising—significantly so in some areas—and the frequency of meteorological disasters is the highest in the region, Thomas said.

“To prevent years of hard-won economic and social progress being lost, the Philippines and other countries across the region need to invest more in disaster preparedness—in early warnings systems, better land zoning, and environmental controls. Yet many governments still focus only on relief and recovery,” Thomas said.

Thomas warned that as floods and storms hit the Philippines with increased severity, it’s no longer far-fetched to think that a rain-filled typhoon like Ondoy or one with Yolanda’s ferocity could hit two or three times in a single rainy season.

“This calls for carrying out “stress tests” on likely natural hazards, just as stress tests are done on financial and economic crises,” he said.

Maplecraft, a risk research company based in Bath, England, said the Philippines was most at risk globally from natural hazards.

The ADB estimates losses from typhoons to earthquakes average $1.6 billion annually, the most in Southeast Asia. Manila, tops the list of 616 cities ranked by the impact of natural perils to the economy, according to Swiss Re Ltd., the world’s second-largest reinsurer.

“Disaster preparedness should be a clear priority because it can have huge economic costs and affect the poorest in the society,” said Prakriti Sofat, a Singapore-based economist for Barclays Plc.

“President Aquino has the second half of his term to focus on improving disaster management further and, if implemented, the benefits will be long-lasting.”

Yolanda’s total economic impact may reach $14 billion, about $2 billion of which will be insured, according to a report by Jonathan Adams, a senior analyst at Bloomberg Industries, citing Kinetic Analysis Corp.

The Aquino administration plans to more than double state spending on public works to P824 billion by 2016, or about 5 percent of gross domestic product, a ratio the World Bank says is needed to cut poverty and strengthen the economy.

The Philippines plans to spend about P16 billion on flood control and drainage projects this year, out of a record P295 billion infrastructure budget. Another P644 million is allocated for equipment to forecast or monitor storms, volcanic eruptions and quakes, and P7.5 billion for a calamity fund.

“What is lacking is a long-term disaster management plan that not only focuses on response but more importantly prevention,” said Benito Lim, a political science professor at Ateneo de Manila University who advised the governments of Ferdinand Marcos and Aquino’s mother, Corazon Aquino.

“What we need are permanent solutions like resettlement plans for flood-prone areas, more infrastructure like dams and waterways,” he said.

While the record budget this year helped complete the Laguindingan International Airport in Mindanao, less than 60 percent of funds allocated for infrastructure and capital outlays had been disbursed by the end of August, government data show. Aquino is also struggling to implement a program where companies can help build airports, classrooms, hospitals, roads and railways through public-private partnerships.

Out of more than 60 planned projects estimated to cost over $9 billion in the public-private-partnership program started in 2010, the Philippines has completed one -- 500 classrooms meant to be sturdy enough to withstand earthquakes and floods, according to Education Secretary Armin Luistro.

“We are committed to fast-track the delivery of PPP projects,” said Cosette Canilao, executive director of the program. “We are working on solutions to address challenges including the long review and evaluation process.”

Projects such as a P17 billion airport in Cebu and the P59.2 billion extension of a rail line to the province of Cavite from Manila have been delayed by wrangling over terms and concern from some bidders over the risks involved.

Delays in fixing poor infrastructure are costing lives.

Eight-year-old Meme Empenado was buried under a landslide with her brother and two cousins when an earthquake struck her village on Oct. 15. A woman harvesting coconuts nearby heard them crying for help. By the time rescue workers arrived with equipment to dig them out two days later, they couldn’t even find the bodies.

Meme, 10-year-old Jess and cousins Joellene and Jonalyn Somoro, 11 and 13, were among more than 200 who died in the magnitude 7.2 quake in the province of Bohol.

When Meme and her friends died bathing in a waterfall near their village, Katipunan, they were just about 80 kilometers from the provincial capital.

“If they arrived earlier, maybe we could have saved them,” Aimie Diaz, Meme’s second cousin, said by phone on Nov. 5 from the neighboring island of Cebu, after visiting the village and finding her own family home had been destroyed. “All they managed to retrieve were pieces of clothes.”

The quake damaged 73,000 homes, as well as air and seaports, centuries-old churches, schools and hospitals. Four weeks later, Yolanda struck, affecting millions of Filipinos, mostly in the Visayas islands that include Bohol, the government said.

Together, the earthquake and Yolanda have displaced more than 826,000 people, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council said. Diaz, whose family is sleeping in tents, said by phone that they had survived the storm. With Anna Leah Estradaand Bloomberg

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