One could quickly smell the stench of death, a sense of grief and despair. It was undeniable the moment you entered the ravaged city. Bodies of unidentified people – once vibrant human beings – were dumped in a mass grave at Tacloban City, Leyte in the Philippines following the country’s worst natural disaster in history, the super typhoon Yolanda (international name: Haiyan), on November 8, 2013. The bloated bodies of children, adults, and animals were strewn and picked up from all over the place: street corners, national roads, in front of buildings and homes, almost everywhere. In total, Yolanda slipped out of the country and claimed about 6,300 lives. A little over a thousand more remain missing nearly six years on.

In this photo taken on November 8, 2018, a boy and his mother light candles next to crosses to commemorate the fifth anniversary of Super Typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban City, Leyte province, central Philippines
In this photo taken on November 8, 2018, a boy and his mother light candles next to crosses to commemorate the fifth anniversary of Super Typhoon Haiyan (Photo by Bobie ALOTA / AFP)

Realizing much later, the mere dumping of bodies in mass graves should had not been done that way, according to spokesperson and director for operations Edgar Posadas of the Office of Civil Defense at the Department of National Defense (DND-OCD). The OCD is the implementing arm of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC). “We learned that there’s a way to somehow address mass deaths in a very scientific way that we can easily identify (the bodies) when time comes someone has to claim,” he said in a phone interview, illustrating one of the many changes that had taken effect in their disaster risk reduction and management (DRRM) guidelines after a thorough analysis of the catastrophe. Thus, the approval of the management of the death and the missing guidelines, which is led by the Department of Interior and Local Government, came about.

There were lootings, crimes, and chaos at that time because the people were “hungry and confused,” he recalled. To contain possibly similar circumstances, a law and order cluster has been added in the original eight clusters of response being followed by the government which were based on the clusters of the United Nations.

Donated resources will be controlled, too. An overwhelming amount of resources, which has no basis, proved to be “more of a burden than a help,” Posadas confessed. So the procedure now is to identify first the immediate resources needed and to gauge if the local resources are enough to sustain the need. If the situation warrants, a state of calamity will be declared, thus triggering the need for external assistance. This is where the Philippine International Humanitarian Assistance cluster headed by the Department of Foreign Affairs comes in.

“Even our forecasting system has improved a lot because we invested on several efforts that are science-based. What we’re also doing now is, when PAGASA (Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration) has forecasted the typhoon track, we already prepare demographics like the number of people or areas possibly affected and the number of evacuation centers or schools there. We craft that data already so that more or less we know how our response would be and what to be prepared for,” he said.

Posadas said that capacity building of 14 vulnerable sectors, which include the fisher folks, farmers, informal settlers, women and youth, and people with disabilities, has been strengthened as well. The local government agencies conduct trainings to teach these sectors how to be self-sufficient for the next 72 hours after a disaster. “Because they are most likely on their own during those hours,” he pointed out. He clarified that capacity building has always been part of their guidelines before, but it wasn’t just as “structured or formalized” as it is now. “What happened in particular in 2018 is it became more structured because our budget indicated that we should focus on that area and make them less vulnerable by capacitating them. If you increase the capacity then you decrease the vulnerability, the impact of the hazard,” he further said.

He went on to say that the new operational guidelines in DRRM had been enforced during the most recent super typhoon Ompong (international name: Mangkhut) on September 15 last year which largely helped in preventing what could have been bigger death toll and property damages. Ompong left 82 fatalities, 138 injured, and two missing based on the last situational report from the NDRRMC in October last year.

Posadas added that they likewise partnered with telecommunications companies to provide early warning messaging, mandating them to allocate resources free of charge to the government. Although sending timely, area-specific warnings remains a challenge for them now, they are “trying to work on the technology requirement, which is the CBS or cell broadcast system.”

Social media plays a key role in such dire times too, and he couldn’t agree more. “This is one of the platforms that we are capitalizing on, especially on Twitter and Facebook. We are now developing a more Twitter-active system, but we also have to decipher what’s true or not,” Posadas said.

 Preparations were in high gear in the Philippines with super Typhoon Mangkhut set to make a direct hit in less than 24 hours, packing winds up to 255 kilometres per hour and drenching rains
Preparations were in high gear in the Philippines with super Typhoon Mangkhut set to make a direct hit in less than 24 hours, packing winds up to 255 kilometres per hour and drenching rains (Photo by NOEL CELIS / AFP)

As for mitigating possible risks of earthquakes, he revealed they’re going to be stricter in implementing the building code and in intensifying the monitoring of structures, especially by the LGUs issuing the permits. “A new building code is also on the way this year, with several enhancements to ensure the safety and resiliency of structures,” he said. The Philippines was struck by a magnitude 6.1 earthquake in Castillejos, Zambales and felt in several parts of Luzon at around five in the afternoon of April 22 this year. The NDRRMC recorded 18 fatalities, three missing persons, and 256 injured based on its situational report on May 3.

Many things have indeed changed, according to Posadas. “Even the locals now seek out for their personal safety,” he said.

It’s unfortunate that these catastrophic disasters happened in the country, but these became “catalysts for change,” Posadas confessed. “The Philippines now has become a laboratory for learnings for equally vulnerable countries. People from other countries go to us, go to Yolanda-stricken areas when I was still OCD regional director of region VIII,” he said. “It’s not that we prayed for Yolanda to come but probably it’s because we needed to experience to identify where we lack in terms of disaster preparation and response. Yolanda became a game-changer, our benchmark now for coping and for resiliency. There were preparations before Yolanda came, but they didn’t expect the wrath of a Yolanda. So it seems we needed a Yolanda to revisit our policies, our laws, and see where we can still make improvements.”

Additionally, the Congress approved a House Bill 8165 proposing the creation of a Department of Disaster Resilience on its third and final reading early this year. DND secretary Delfin Lorenzana was quoted saying in local news reports that they want to elevate the OCD to a new department to even more strengthen the DRRM in the country. Asked what would happen with the transformation, Posadas said he isn’t completely sure yet. “But we leave that up to the legislators, to lawmakers, since we have not seen the complete form yet. But once that is enacted then everybody should follow.”

Meanwhile, not learning from the past is bad but refusing to listen to experts is far worse, according to Kairos Dela Cruz, associate for climate policy and unit head of climate policy team of the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities (ICSC). “Our LGUs (local government units) and officers must listen to what science is telling us,” he said in a text exchange. For one, he said there’s a problem on localizing climate information. “What does it mean for us? It’s a question that LGU always asks, and it’s something that should be answered soon. In worse cases, business and political interests go in the way of a right decision,” he added.

He shared that the “ICSC works directly with government agencies, especially in levels where plans are made and where climate finance is channeled to.” They also engage with student organizations and academic institutions on areas such as research and renewable energy innovations, among many others. He added that they are likewise trying to bring more attention to “slow onset events or incremental climatic impacts that require longer period of time to be felt, which could be more difficult to deal with and to some extent irreparable,” such as sea level rise, ocean pacification, increase in ambient temperature, and so forth.

He stressed: “Climate change is here and it is here to stay. It brings a lot of challenges to a developing country such as the Philippines. However, if we do it right, climate change also brings a lot of opportunities. We can pump prime our energy sector by the introduction of renewables, improve our agriculture by using smarter technology, and so on.”

So is the Philippines on the road to being a “climate-smart and disaster-resilient” country? Both Posadas and Dela Cruz gave an affirmative reply.

“A country has to be climate-adaptive to be disaster-resilient, and I think we’re doing good about that. Our capacity has been strengthened, particularly on the prevention and mitigation. Because if we are prepared, we have the necessary policies there, we also have the likes of science-based early warning initiatives, coupled with a strong DRRM system,” said Posadas. “I think we’re really on our road to resiliency. But to say that we are 100% percent resilient, I think it’s still a work in progress for the country.”

On the other hand, Dela Cruz said: “Experience is forcing us to do so, for example is Yolanda. The challenge is how to sustain this. As it is now, we are going towards a more resilient and climate-smart future, slowly but surely.”

But the DRRM, for it to work, isn’t dependent on a single leader or group alone. “For the DRRM to be successful, everybody has to give its share because one way or the other we can be victims ourselves, so we always have to look at it that way,” Posadas said. “We have to participate, we have to be active. For the whole system to work it’s not just efforts of government. Each and every individual has to be conscious and has to have that desire to be safe,” he further said. He advised that even parents should teach their children about disaster management as early as possible.

Posadas said they indeed look up to several role model countries in emergency preparedness and disaster response. Among them is Japan that’s similarly prone to disasters but has been considered globally as experts in the field. “We hope to be like them someday,” he said.