A 6.9 magnitude earthquake struck Negros and Cebu provinces in central Philippines on Monday afternoon, killing dozens of people on the two major islands of the Visayas region. Strong aftershocks plus a false tsunami alert caused panic in several coastal towns. The casualties are bound to rise in quake-damaged villages as rescuers continue to search for survivors.
The earthquake is the latest disaster to hit the Philippines in the past two months. Last December, heavy rainfall caused flashfloods in Cagayan de Oro and Iligan in north Mindanao, killing more than a thousand people and destroying the homes of an estimated 100,000 families. Barely a month after this tragedy, a landslide buried more than 30 people in a small mining community in Pantukan, Compostela Valley in southern Mindanao. Several provinces including Cebu, Davao, Bukidnon, Maguindanao, Negros, Leyte and Aklan have also suffered from floods since January.
What makes this wave of flood disasters more worrisome, aside from the human casualties, is the fact that there was no major recent tropical cyclone to hit the country to trigger the floods and mudslides. Residents living near river banks are already thinking of relocating because if normal rains alone can cause such destructive floods, the impact of strong typhoons could well be much worse.
The Philippines is actually one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world. Situated inside the Pacific Ring of Fire, the Philippine archipelago is battered by at least 25 major storms every year. And because of climate change, it also suffers from extreme weather disturbances. Next month, several parts of the country are expected to experience an extended period of drought due to the El Nino phenomenon.
But to pin the blame on climate change for the casualties is wrong since many of the weather-related deaths are preventable. It must be emphasized that the negative effects of climate change are compounded by poverty, bad governance, and destructive economic activities.
The government’s inefficiency during crisis situations was exposed when it failed to mobilize its resources on time and coordinate the efforts of all agencies during the recent flooding and earthquake disasters. The public has the right to demand the formulation of a comprehensive disaster risk reduction program that can save lives and minimize casualties during freak weather events. Indeed, politicians were able to gather and distribute relief goods to survivors, but scientists and environmentalists insist that the government should have prioritized the setting up of an effective early warning system, emergency drills, quick response teams, and the construction of adequate infrastructure in calamity-prone areas as part of its disaster preparedness program. The geo-hazard map that the government has already completed would be rendered useless if there’s no concrete national disaster management plan.
The present government also has to explain why it re-issued logging and mining permits in landslide-prone provinces. At a minimum, it should review all large-scale mining activities and determine their impact on the country’s fragile island ecosystem. It should also reconsider the petition of multinational companies to expand their fruit plantations in the uplands of Mindanao Island.
The “inconvenient truths” of climate change have already been thoroughly discussed by academics, the media and even government institutions. Everybody knows that strong typhoons, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions are common in this part of the world. The Philippines is a country that should excel in disaster preparedness, but unfortunately its climate change adaptation program is a major disaster.