GENEVA, 30 January 2012 - UNISDR Chief, Margareta Wahlström, was standing at “ground zero” of typhoon-battered northern Mindanao as she surveyed the remains of the once vibrant community of Kala-Kala, Barangay Macasandig, in Cagayan de Oro City.
Rampaging waters from the Cagayan de Oro River combined with a tide of mud and debris from the mountains destroyed this peaceful settlement of 400 households leaving very few survivors.
It was an all too familiar scene for Ms. Wahlström which immediately brought back recollections of similar devastation left behind in the wake of last year’s tsunami in Japan and the Asian tsunami of 2004.
She observed: “This is another terrible tragedy which reminds us again of how exposed many coastal and delta regions are as a result of environmental degradation, rapid urbanization, population growth and more intense tropical storms and rainfall.
“There is always room for improvement in disaster management but inappropriate land-use is centre-stage in this disaster and I am happy to hear that over 10,000 families are now to be re-located away from ‘no build’ zones in Cagayan de Oro and Iligan. Building resilience is crucial to the success of the recovery effort.”
Overall, Ms. Wahlström praised the government, church and civil society groups in northern Mindanao for their “very good and prompt response” to the disaster. In a front page interview with the Philippine Daily Inquirer yesterday, she also called for increased government funding for disaster risk reduction and the establishment of a comprehensive land use policy to better protect communities against increasing and more severe climate-related hazards.
Tropical Storm Sendong (also known as Washi) came like a thief in the night of December 17 to inflict a cruel blow on a country which has been buffeted by disasters throughout 2012. Millions of people had been displaced by earlier tropical storms, sometimes striking back-to-back but Sendong turned out to be deadliest of all last year’s 33 major disasters to hit the Philippines claiming 1,430 lives and leaving thousands homeless.
As if to add insult to injury, the illegal logging which contributed to what was an environmental disaster as much as anything else, is now hampering the clean-up effort. Thousands of logs, loosed down the mountainside by the deluge, are impeding the flow of water in canals and creeks and batter the homes of fishermen at high tide.
The island continues to live with the impact of over 200,000 people living in evacuation centres and with host families, many sick and injured, the psychological impact of mass burials and a significant number of unaccompanied children. It will take time for the people of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan City to get over the legacy of Typhoon Sendong but it has left behind a real appreciation of the meaning of building resilient communities.
During her visit last week to the disaster zone, the UNISDR chief met briefly with the Philippine President Benigno Aquino at the launch of the state housing programme for flood victims in Sta Elena, Iligan. She was impressed with his interest in the detail of the housing program and found that he shared UNISDR’s perspective on resilience and the need to minimize the impact of future floods and storms.
She also met with Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario on Friday when she discussed the need for social mobilization to be linked to early flood warnings to ensure timely evacuations. They also discussed the combination of environmental factors which contributed to the disaster including illegal logging; the need to develop risk-sensitive comprehensive land use plans and the need for greater cooperation between the public and private sectors to reduce risk.
The Government of Philippines, through the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) and the Office of Civil Defense (OCD) began last year to develop a new disaster loss database for the country, with support from UNISDR using standardized criteria and definitions and local level geo-referencing.