Preparing for Disaster in the Philippines

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Preparing for Disaster in the Philippines

The Philippines needs to have a dedicated department for disaster preparedness and response.

Preparing for Disaster in the Philippines

An aerial view of the destruction left by Typhoon Yolanda.

Credit: Russell Watkins/Department for International Development

Four years have passed since Typhoon Yolanda (Typhoon Haiyan) devastated the people of the Visayas and reconstruction efforts are well underway for the communities ravaged by the super typhoon. Now is the time to study the lessons learnt from the response to Typhoon Yolanda, or the lack of response. The entanglement of governance issues and the coordination of disaster response and preparedness efforts has drained the bureaucratic resource and political goodwill of the National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council (NDRRMC), a coordinating body which, amongst other portfolios, is chaired by the secretary of national defense.

As a country frequented by various natural disasters, the possibility of another major disaster in the Philippines is not a matter of where, but when. Although there are no short-term solutions to the array of challenges the Philippine government faces in terms of coping with climate change-affected disasters, forming a separate department for disaster preparedness and response is a first step forward to improve the county’s disaster resilience.


The Philippines’ first institutionalized governmental response to disaster response and preparedness came during the Marcos era. Through Presidential Decree 1566, the National Disaster Coordinating Council under the president’s office was established as the highest policymaking body in responding to natural disasters. Fast forward two decades and decentralization movements had taken over the country. In 1991, the duties of disaster management and preparedness fell on the autonomous Local Governance Units, the lowest level of government in the Philippines. Though the National Disaster Coordinating Council was still an office under the president, its powers were severely diminished in the years following the decentralization movement. It wasn’t until 2009, almost four decades after the Marcos-era decree, that the National Disaster Coordinating Council was finally updated and replaced by Republic Act 10121, or the Philippine Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act. And through a consortium of disaster management plans, the NDRRMC mentioned above was born.

There is a growing political consensus that the NDRRMC is ineffective due to its mandate to act through cooperation. To take an example of the bureaucratic entanglement of the NDRRMC, RA 10121 establishes four thematic pillars in disaster risk reduction: disaster prevention and mitigation, disaster preparedness, disaster response, and disaster rehabilitation and recovery. The NDRRMC in turn would coordinate departmental responses according to the pillars assigned. For disaster prevention and mitigation, the DOST would coordinate members from the OCD, DENR and DPWH; for Disaster Preparedness, the DILG would coordinate and be advised by the PIA and OCD; for disaster response, the main task is performed by the DSWD along with members from OCD, DRRMC, DOH, DILG, DND and LGUs; and for disaster rehabilitation and recovery the effort would have to be spearheaded by the NEDA along with NHA, OCD, DPWH, DOH and DSWD.

To any casual observer, the wide array of acronyms looks like it was taken from a never-ending scrabble game. However the acronyms mask a stringent bureaucratic turf-war. Staffing the NDRRMC is often challenged by overlapping roles that take away from the day-to-day functions of the departments. The bureaucratic turf-war also finds an echo in resource allocation and the political prestige of the bureaucracy’s political masters.

Furthermore, responding to disasters is also a political minefield, and the failure to provide an adequate response would inherently lead to public and even international scrutiny. Take the then-mayor of Cagayan de Oro, Vincente Emano, whose failure to respond to Tropical Storm Sendong (Tropical Storm Washi) not only cost him his two-decade long mayoral seat, but also dethroned his political legacy in the region.

On the other hand, disaster preparedness measures are also gateways for pork-barrel politics. The winning of favors for local constituents — in this case, resources allocated for disaster response through the holding of political positions within the NDRRMC — helps to solidify votes and garner local support. The combination of political incentives, bureaucratic entanglement, and governance challenges have led to a brewing storm that had swept away thousands of lives and caused millions in damages.

Though there are no shortages of studies on lessons learned from the various responses to Typhoon Yolanda, the predominant issues point to governance challenges. Direct aid in food, infrastructure reconstruction, the relocation of citizens displaced by disasters, healthcare, and education are all funneled through governmental bodies. However, given the confusing situation on the ground in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, local bureaucrats from the Local Governance Units and provincial and national departmental officers lack a sense of the responsibilities they are tasked to perform through the NDRRMC.

Moving Forward

In terms of disaster preparedness in the Philippines, the raison du jour is localized, decentralized contingency planning stemming from local governments. While there are many positive aspects to this, such as tailor-made contingency planning, it also separates low-income communities from other local governments. And as Typhoon Yolanda and other experiences have demonstrated, those most affected are from low-income communities with poor infrastructure and living near flood-zones.

Politically, there are also calls from the executive branch for updating, revising, and forming of a new department to address disaster prevention and management issues. There are currently eight related bills being discussed in the Philippine Congress. These bills range from the replacement of the current NDRMMC with a new cabinet department, the updating of the mandate of the NDRMMC to give the council more roles and functions, and the replacement of the current NDRMMC with an agency under the office of the president. While there is an ongoing effort and political interest to merge the bills, so far, none of these eight bills attest to the challenge of bureaucratic contestation and political patronization.

To move forward, it is imperative to ensure that the governance challenge is being adequately addressed. The coordination of departments and bureaucracies can only go so far. And at the moment, the only response to the various challenges addressed above is to centralize the coordinating council of the NDRRMC into an independent department with its own budget and staffing. The benefit of an independent department is to fast-track programs under one office, limit the number of political appointed positions and the various bureaucratic competitions, and provide a centralized policy directive for disaster prevention and response policies.

This being said however, given the political climate in the Philippines at the moment, a newly founded department is also a fresh breeding ground for political competition and the creation of “just-another-department.” The path forward is to build upon the experience in responding to Typhoon Yolanda and other major disasters and to create a department led by political actors with an entrepreneurial spirit. Such an individual can spread the lessons learned to all levels of government, including a newly formed department responsible for disaster response. Only then can the Philippines truly begin to consolidate and to build resilience toward disasters caused by rapidly changing climate systems.

Leo Lin is a graduate student at Waseda University, Japan. The opinions expressed in this piece are his own and do not reflect that of Waseda University or other institutions.