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Philippine authorities urged to climate-proof cities, coastal areas

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 22 Jan 2014 09:53 AM
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A man sits on the roof of his house, which is submerged by floods caused by tropical depression "Agaton", in Butuan on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, Jan. 21, 2014. REUTERS/Erik De Castro
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MANILA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The Philippines urgently needs to improve the ability of its cities and coastal areas to cope with climate change and minimise the risks from extreme weather events, such as powerful storm surges, in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, experts say.

Worsening climate impacts in the Southeast Asian nation - from droughts to stronger and more frequent typhoons, increased flooding and sea-level rise along the coast - can no longer be ignored, according to a study of 12 cities released in mid-January by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Bank of the Philippine Islands (BPI) Foundation.

Growing climate risks must be a signal for the government to pool its resources, including funding for climate-appropriate technology, skills, infrastructure and systems, to reduce the impact of related disasters, the study said.

It was released two months after Typhoon Haiyan (known locally as Yolanda) devastated the central Philippines, leaving more than 6,000 people dead, millions homeless and causing almost 600 billion pesos (around $13 billion) in economic damages.

“No one knows where the next big typhoon will hit, so all cities should prepare ahead,” WWF-Philippines Vice-Chair and CEO Jose Ma. Lorenzo Tan said in a statement. “Relocating roads and communities to high ground, constructing seawalls, coastal barriers and establishing evacuation safe-zones will cost millions. But will you really put a price tag on Filipino lives?”

INVESTING IN BUFFERS

The study looked at the economic vulnerability to climate impacts of the four disaster-prone cities of Angeles, Batangas, Naga and Tacloban, as well as Baguio, Cebu, Davao, Iloilo, Cagayan de Oro, Dagupan, Laoag and Zamboanga.

It said geo-hazard maps show the typhoon-devastated city of Tacloban, for example, is highly susceptible to both flooding and landslides.

“No one can define the scope and sequence of climate change with absolute certainty. That being the case, adaptive capacity becomes an essential asset,” the study said. “An investment in societal reserves – in the form of both human and financial capital – provides one reactive buffer to unforeseen circumstances.”

A key recommendation was to “climate-proof” local infrastructure, for example by moving coastal roads and communities to higher ground, improving drainage systems and investing in natural solutions like mangrove forests.

The Philippines sits along the Pacific typhoon belt and experiences an average of 20 typhoons a year. It is identified as the third most vulnerable country to climate change and extreme weather events in the World Risk Report 2012, issued by the United Nations University Institute of Environment and Human Security.

The WWF study emphasised that growing population and urbanisation trends mean that as a city’s footprint expands, its dependence on external resources increases too. 

“With an increasing trend of rural to urban migration, more people are exposed to risk,” the Philippines' Climate Change Commission (CCC) Secretary Mary Ann Lucille Sering told Thomson Reuters Foundation after the launch of the report.

“Cities - especially growth centres like Manila, Cebu, Cagayan De Oro, Baguio and Tacloban -  are not really planned around their vulnerabilities,” she said. “These cities need to understand climate change adaptation and how they are vulnerable to natural disasters.

LOCAL ACTION NEEDED

Sering urged local governments to include climate change adaptation policies in their development strategies. Two existing laws on climate change and disaster risk reduction and management “must be seriously integrated in their local planning”, she emphasised.

In recent years, the national government has begun to shift from reactive policies to a more proactive stance, with climate impacts now considered in all planning, Sering said.

Current projects and programmes are focused on climate change adaptation, disaster reduction, promotion of low-carbon development based on renewable energy sources, solid waste management and climate-proofing of infrastructure.

Other programmes implemented last year include vulnerability assessments of different sectors, especially agriculture, and the scaling up of an “eco-town framework” to build sustainable towns such as on Siargao Island in Surigao del Norte, one of the country’s poorest areas.

The government is also pushing for a bill that would incorporate climate change and disaster risk reduction issues into decision-making on land use, Sering said.

“We are faced by so many challenges, but time is running out and we need to protect the country and the people from climate hazards, resource scarcity and damage to ecosystems,” Sering stressed.

Disaster risk reduction experts hope that a change in the national budget, ushered in at the end of 2013 after the typhoon, will make more funding available to protect people and property from natural hazards. The Calamity Fund, most of which was earmarked for response after a disaster, has been replaced by a new $293 million National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Fund.   

Albay Governor Joey Salceda, who is a champion of climate and disaster risk management in the Philippines, called for local climate action plans to make cities more resilient.

“We should have learned our lessons from Typhoon Haiyan. We need to plan more at the local level, prepare our people and strengthen our disaster risk management in order to minimise hazards,” said Salceda, who is also co-chair of the U.N. Green Climate Fund.

Salceda called on local governments to protect communities through measures like installing early warning systems, upgrading weather forecasting equipment and disaster planning for villages before, during and after extreme events.

“Disasters can be an opportunity for us to look back and plan for the future of our communities,” Salceda said. “The goal of governance in disasters is to allow development to proceed in the midst of all the uncertainties and risks.”

Imelda Abano is a freelance contributor for the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Manila.

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