COMMENTARY: Beyond Awareness: Disaster risk reduction in Laos, PH

VIENTIANE, Laos (MindaNews/17 May) — The National Disaster Management Office under the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare of Lao People’s Democratic Republic held a workshop on ASEAN Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response (AADMER) here on May 13-14.

The AADMER was signed by 10 ASEAN countries in 2005 and was ratified and implemented since 2009. Its work program runs from 2010 to 2015.

In an interview, I asked Director Vilarphong Sisomvang why after two years of implementation, it was only this year that they conducted an orientation on the AADMER.

He said the stakeholders, including sectors from the government and civil society, need to understand deeper the AADMER and the national disaster management plan of Lao PDR.

He explained that if they understand the country’s needs and priorities for disaster management, then they can effectively support the implementation.

Disasters in Laos are mainly flood and drought, he said, adding that the government’s priorities include the integration of a disaster management plan into the national development agenda.

He cited that, for one, the education sector in Laos has integrated disaster risk reduction in the curriculum of primary and secondary education.

Raising people’s awareness on disaster risk reduction is a basic step in empowering them to become more responsive and resilient in times of disasters.

But it is important to note that it needs more than just awareness and understanding to prevent the loss of lives and properties during natural disasters.

PH experience

For some areas in the Philippines, awareness and understanding seem not enough to reduce risks during calamities, despite having disaster management plans and geo-hazard maps.

Typhoon Pablo (international name Bopha) hit the Davao Region in Mindanao last December. It affected 6.2 million people, with at least 1,000 people dead and hundreds still missing.

A Typhoon Pablo survivor in Cateel town, a coastal area in Davao Oriental province, said he did not listen to warnings that a big storm was coming.

In the dawn of December 4, the day when the typhoon made landfall in the region, he saw the waves rise to extraordinary heights. It was only at the time that he and his family evacuated to a nearby area that they thought was safe.

He said even if they had received weather advisories, the town people did not expect that a strong typhoon would hit their areas, as they had not experienced storms in decades.

They feared more the (economic) havoc that might be caused by leaving their farms or fishing boats than the real havoc that the super typhoon would bring to their lives.

Last January, heavy rains flooded the southern parts of the Philippines, particularly in Davao City and nearby towns. It affected a total of 125,000 people, including over 15,000 families from Davao City, and reportedly left six people dead and four missing.

The city planning and development office chief, Robert Alabado III, earlier said the city is prepared for flooding but the frequency of flooding cannot be predicted.

He advised the residents to build their houses at least two-stories high. But it is only a temporary reduction of risks, he said, adding that the best thing for them to do is to avoid building their houses in flood-prone areas.

The city government already planned to relocate informal settlers by the riverbanks. But the lack of funds and areas for relocation where job opportunities are also available seem to make the plan elusive.

The settlers had been told several times that they are living in hazardous areas. But they did not give up their homes because these are near their sources of livelihood.

The people have been made aware of the risks they will face in times of disasters. They understand the impacts and the need for them to act and cooperate for their own welfare.

What else needs to be done for the people, especially the vulnerable sectors, to be more responsive and self-reliant in reducing the risk of disasters?

Community-based approach

The AADMER emphasizes community-based disaster risk reduction for promoting resilience among sectoral groups alongside “the respect for rights and sustainable development.”

Mr Vilarphong said one of Laos’ priorities is to promote and implement community-based disaster risk management. It involves local capacity building and better understanding of the risks and hazards, and appropriate measures in coping with disaster at the community level.

Community-based approach has been “the mechanism for change within civil society” in the Philippines, according to the book Community-based Disaster Risk Reduction, edited by Rajib Shaw and published in 2012.

The new disaster management law of the Philippines in 2010 adopted the community-based disaster risk reduction as a model.

The law provides the creation of the National Risk Reduction and Management Council, formerly the National Disaster Coordinating Council. It has local formations in the regional, provincial, city, municipal and barangay (village) levels.

In Davao, the city disaster risk reduction and management council facilitated emergency response trainings to disaster risk reduction groups in every village. The council also provided education on climate change mitigation to community members.

Laws are already in place. Advanced technologies have been utilized such as providing computerized flood simulations based on updated geo-hazard maps.

Before the midterm elections last May 13, the city council in Davao drafted a law combining disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation.

Whether or not the new set of legislators will approve the bill, they need to look more closely on how to empower the people, especially the farmers and urban poor, in protecting themselves from disasters while upholding their economic rights and welfare.

Lao PDR’s priorities to integrate the disaster management plan into the country’s development agenda will not only help raise people’s awareness. It will also motivate them to actively participate in the coming up of disaster risk reduction measures.

The city government of Davao had also integrated disaster risk reduction and management measures in its comprehensive development plan for 2012-2021.

Alabado said the people, especially the urban poor, have their own risk assessment, which is definitely based on their economic needs.

He noted that taking a person away from his source of income even just for a week can cause him or her to die of hunger, which poses more risk “than flooding or typhoon that happens only once in 10 years.”

(Lorie Ann Cascaro of MindaNews is one of the fellows of the FK Norway (Fredskorpset) exchange program in partnership with the Vietnam Forum of Environmental Journalists. She’s currently in Laos and hosted by the Vientiane Times.)