Written by Jan Robert R. Go.

Natural hazards, such as typhoon Yolanda and the most recent Surigao earthquake, and man-made calamities, such as the Zamboanga siege, both require coherent and effective crisis management. In such situations governments, at different levels, take on the role of managers: rescue operation, the transportation of relief goods, the provision of medical assistance and the logistical challenges posed by are remote areas are just some of the challenges of crisis management. But these concerns, while natural and valid, are often limited to the emergency aftermath of disasters. This is problematic as the impact of disasters can last for years.

In the Philippines, post-disaster efforts are the focus of most existing structures from the national agencies to local government. This is particularly true of the pre-National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) period. Before the NDRRMC, the Philippines had the National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC). As its name indicates, the agency was  highly focused on coordination during and after disasters. Unfortunately, there is nothing necessarily different or new that can be said today.

Though lessons have been learned from the past such as engaging in pre-emptive or forced evacuation and early preparation for post-disaster relief and response, there have been few developments in relation to the prevention, minimization, and mitigation of possible risks. The Philippines sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire and adjacent to the Pacific Ocean, typhoons, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes are common. In addition, long running conflicts persist in various parts of the country. These conflicts can trigger human-instigated crises. In the face of these multiple threats government agencies have yet to fully realize the promise of the Philippine Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act of 2010.

I suggest a paradigm shift in governmental crises and disaster response —that is, towards the governance of risk. This approach would aim to shift crises management from simply coordinating responses to the destructive impact of disasters to a broader appreciation of relief and rehabilitation tasks and reducing the detrimental effects on human life. Certainly, there are crises and disasters that cannot be contained, much less stopped. But a shift in focus to risk governance may enable authorities to decrease the adverse effects of disasters. A clear and properly crafted disaster risk reduction and management plan (DRRMP) is one step in this direction. Once possible risks are identified, governments can work to address these threats and to reduce negative effects on daily life. Alongside these efforts, the government must make sure that the people get correct information about the risks. The people should be able to come up with their own means and synchronize them with government plans.

How can risk governance, instead of simply crisis management, help solve possible problems? Earlier this year, the City of Cagayan de Oro (CDO) and the Province of Misamis Oriental in Mindanao suffered heavy rains and sustained flooding for days. This effectively incapacitated the entire city. Interestingly, there was no storm, only a low-pressure area (LPA). According to the Philippine weather bureau, ithe problem was purely monsoon rains. Based on records, the amount of rainfall was typical in the season. What was the problem? CDO has been considered a catch-basin in the region. Flood waters would flow to the city given its low altitude. Having experienced flooding before during typhoons Sendong and Pablo, the flooding could have been prevented if the city government had adopted a disaster risk reduction framework.

Related to the idea of risk governance is that of advance recovery. Does this mean governments should already be concerned about recovery prior to the actual calamity? In the comprehensive risk management framework offered by Arnold Howitt and his colleagues in the Harvard Kennedy School, there are five different opportunities where governments can start moving in to prevent high casualties and damages post-disaster. These include: (1) advance mitigation, where prevention and mitigation of consequences are done in advance; (2) preparation of response, where preparations are made to prevent/mitigate consequences during the event; (3) preparation of recovery, which focuses on prevention and mitigation of consequences after the event (4) the actual response, which focuses on reduction of damages during the event; and (5) recovery, which aims to restore social welfare quickly.

Despite the potential advantages of risk governance, challenges remain. Are governments prepared or equipped to do advance recovery? Do they have the capacity and capability, especially the local government units, to do so? The manner in which risk is communicated is crucial and correct information must be provided to the people. Particularly in situations where local governments are heavily reliant on national agencies for support, whether in terms of technical information, financial or human resources, advance recovery in the Philippines remains a potential, as opposed to an actual, disaster risk reduction strategy. This situation is complicated by the archipelagic geography, over burdened infrastructure and extreme inequality that can be seen across the Philippines.

Jan Robert. R Go is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of the Philippines, Diliman. He is a researcher with the ESRC/Dfid funded project ‘Poverty Alleviation in the Wake of Typhoon Yolanda. Image credit: CC by Wikipedia Commons.

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