Remember Yolanda’s lessons

ALL SOULS’ DAY will be different this year for those who lost relatives and friends when typhoon Yolanda battered the Philippines on Nov. 8 last year. It will also be difficult because for those who have survived, daily living has become a struggle: a struggle for food, sanitation and privacy.

 One year since Yolanda, thousands are still living in tents and bunkhouses. Fisherfolk are being moved to safer grounds, often far from the sea, and still others are uncertain with their livelihoods. Of the 215,000 families who need to be relocated, the government can only deliver 10,063 homes up to December 2015. According to the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council (HUDCC), the budget for the 109,937 homes is still pending while the rest are targeted to be built in 2016. One year since Yolanda, the search for answers, resources and direction remains. This could not be more real than for individuals and communities who were already living in poverty and had little wherewithal to survive even before the typhoon made its landfall.
One way of learning the lessons of Yolanda is by engaging in the sunset review of the Philippine Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) and Management Act, otherwise known as Republic Act (RA) 10121. The law provides for the establishment of disaster risk reduction management offices at different levels of governance; the development of DRR plans; and the availability of DRR and development funds, among others.

Five years since the birth of RA 10121, it is still not clear how many towns have implemented the law by setting up DRR offices with well-trained staff, developing DRR plans which use the DRR budget, or building safe and accessible evacuation centers, among others. But the losses and damage wrought by Yolanda just magnify the degree of unpreparedness of several municipalities. Back in May during its field visit in Tacloban, Oxfam observed that there were no evacuation or contingency plans, despite increased awareness of risks among survivors in temporary shelters and the certainty of typhoons in the next six months.

While municipalities across the Philippines may have a stock of relief goods, this alone does not count as DRR, much less inclusive community-based DRR, which is premised on the meaningful participation of the marginalized and vulnerable sectors in all aspects of preparation, prevention and response.

Scaling Up Resilience in Governance (SURGE), a consortium of aid agencies comprising Christian Aid, Handicap International, Oxfam and Plan International, shares the concerns of many civil society organizations which have been lobbying for participatory, dignified, inclusive and sustainable DRR policies and practices. The sunset review is a chance to strengthen these badly needed elements in RA 10121. However, the review has already begun without the full participation of civil society organizations and communities. Moreover, the review is done following two tracks: While Congress is set to review the main text of RA 10121 in 2015, the Office of Civil Defense (OCD) has been holding regional consultations which are limited to the law’s implementing rules and regulations.

Government agencies such as Congress, OCD, and the Office of the Presidential Assistant on Rehabilitation and Recovery (OPARR) should put in place multiple entry points and mechanisms that enable civil society organizations and communities to formally engage the sunset review. They must ensure clarity and accountability for the entire process — how inputs will be accepted, integrated and reconciled with other inputs.

Ultimately, the government has the power to make transformative and lasting changes in policies and practices related to DRR through the review. If the intersecting vulnerabilities of individuals and communities are understood and their capacities to contribute to DRR management harnessed, there is a chance for real change in how the country would prepare for and respond to the disasters that are set to continue having an impact on our lives. By integrating the perspectives of community and strengthening the implementation of the law at the local level, we can truly build on the lessons from Yolanda. We owe it to those who paid with their lives and those who continue to struggle to survive.

Justin Morgan is the country director of Oxfam, the lead agency of SURGE. Action for Economic Reforms (AER) is involved in SURGE through its partnership with Christian Aid.

This article was first posted on BusinessWorld last November 2, 2014

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