A tricycle speeds past toppled utility posts destroyed at the height of Super Typhoon Goni after it hit Tabaco, Albay province, south of Manila on November 1, 2020. Photo: AFP / Charism Sayat

It is not uncommon for the Philippines to have at least 20 tropical cyclones in a single year, aside from volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. But it is not only the cyclones that cause death, displacement, and property loss; worsening the problem is government unpreparedness and lack of funding for disaster risk reduction (DRR).

November is not over yet, and already the year 2020 has been one of the worst for typhoons.

On November 1, the world’s most powerful tropical cyclone so far this year, Super Typhoon Goni (local name Rolly), made landfall twice in the Bicol Region in southern Luzon. Three days later, Typhoon Siony brought rainfall and flooding to some parts of Luzon.

We thought it was the last. But the worst was yet to come.

Early on November 14, I received a private message: “Ate, tulungan nyo kami.” (Big sister, help us.)

I am in Thailand. My friend lives in Isabela, a province in the Philippines’ Cagayan Valley. We were focused on Marikina City, in the National Capital Region, which was badly hit by Typhoon Ulysses (international name Vamco). Because of heavy rain, the Philippines’ largest dam, the Magat Dam, in the region released water submerging several provinces in the Cagayan Valley.

The lack of media visibility in some areas devastated by typhoons was partly due to the closure of ABS-CBN, which had regional networks. The franchise of the media giant owned by the Lopez family was not renewed by Congress in July.

This time, I could only cry and curse. From Bicol Region to Marikina and the Cagayan Valley, I personally know many people who have suffered the brunt of nature.

But is it really nature’s way? Or can we avert calamities?

The recent disasters are unprecedented in history. Whoever the president was, these might not have been prevented. But leadership matters. Science matters.

Barely a year into his term as president, in March 2017, Rodrigo Duterte stopped Project NOAH, citing a lack of funds. Fortunately, thanks to the DRR project’s importance, the University of the Philippines “adopted” it from its mother organization, the Department of Science and Technology.

“Our record shows that on average, hydromet [hydrological and meteorological] disasters happen once a year and at most twice per year. Now it’s six in the span of one year! It can’t be like this with us just waiting for the next disaster to happen. Something is wrong and it does not seem to be [only] climate change,” Mahar Lagmay, the director of the UP NOAH Center and an eminent scientist in the Philippines, told me in an interview after the second-deadliest typhoon hit the country on December 26, 2018.

Project NOAH (Nationwide Operational Assessment Hazards) is the predecessor of UP NOAH, also headed by Lagmay.

Project NOAH was a flagship program of Benigno Aquino’s government in response to Typhoon Sendong in 2011. It was composed of disaster mitigation and prevention projects funded by the Department of Science and Technology.

With its state-of-the-art technology and trained scientists, it was instrumental in identifying areas that would be hit by hazards at a particular time. The Mines and Geosciences Bureau has maps that have all places in a community mapped with hazards and depicts historical records of hazards, while Project NOAH maps identify the safest places in a community and hazards bigger than what the community has experienced.

“Disasters happen [for] many reasons,” Lagmay said. “In my opinion, something that is lost along with a series of ‘disasters with mass casualties’ is the hazard-specific, area-focused, and time-bound warnings provided by the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council through the Pre-Disaster Risk Assessment during the period from 2014 to mid-2017.

“Instead, we have restored general warnings where many provinces [sometimes 30 or more] have [all] been listed as flood and landslide-prone areas.”

In 2015, Typhoon Yolanda hit Tacloban. Project NOAH was instrumental in forecasting the storm surge.

Project NOAH’s effectiveness was tested during Typhoon Haiyan on November 8, 2013, touted as the most powerful typhoons in recorded history. It had maximum sustained winds reaching 315km/h with gusts up to 379km/h just before landfall. Tacloban City in Leyte, central Philippines, was hit hard by the storm surge, leaving 6,300 dead, 1,061 missing, and scores injured or displaced.

In an assessment paper titled “Devastating Storm Surges of Typhoon Haiyan,” the blame was not entirely put on the typhoon itself but on the inadequate action of the concerned local government units in the central Philippines region, despite the warnings on radio, television, and social media about the storm surge.

Learning the lessons of Haiyan, Lagmay claimed that more typhoon-related disasters were averted, until the defunding of Project NOAH.

In 2017, we rejoiced in Duterte’s victory against the “oligarchs.” We thought he was firm in his promises to be a “father” who would “protect” us.

He began by appointing Gina Lopez, a known philanthropist and environmental advocate, to be secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Lopez’ short stint in the DENR revealed to us the devastation of the Marikina watershed. She ordered the suspension of various mining companies.

Not a seer, but a firm believer in science, she predicted the devastation that the denudation of watersheds due to quarrying, mining, and deforestation would lead to an unimaginable catastrophe.

Gina Lopez died of cancer in 2019.

Lopez’ appointment was not confirmed by the Commission on Appointments. The CA was composed of members of the House of Representatives and the Senate. Roy Cimatu, a former military man, was appointed and confirmed as the DENR secretary, to the joy of mining companies.

Kaliwa Dam in the Sierra Mountains was approved by Secretary Cimatu in 2019. Several coal-fired power plants are in operation or will start operating. The quarrying activities in Mayon and Marikina continue.

In December 2019, the calamity fund was slashed by 4 billion pesos (US$83 million). At the start of 2020, the pandemic began sweeping the world. Meanwhile, the Duterte government allocated 4.5 billion pesos to “intelligence” personnel who are basing their reports on Facebook posts.

For the government, resilience is always the magic word. It has been overused to mask inefficiency. Many have died. Hundred of thousands of Filipinos have lost their livelihoods. Many have lost hope. In our efforts to save whatever is left to us, the people are helping one another.

We are sacrificing to help our country while the national government never mentions that its billions of pesos in intel funds would be diverted as a calamity fund and billions were lost because of unabated corruption. We never demand accountability. Instead, we are shelling out our hard-earned money to help the people.

We have to prepare for stronger typhoons due to climate change. But the biggest disaster that we have to face is the inefficiency of the government.

Eunice Barbara C Novio

Eunice Barbara C Novio is a Thailand-based freelance journalist. Her articles have appeared on Asian Correspondent, America Media, and The Nation. She is also a contributor to the Bangkok Post and Thai Enquirer and a stringer to Inquirer.net's US Bureau. She won a Plaridel Award from the Philippine American Press Club.