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A deadly combination of natural hazards

(Fourth of a series)

Senator Manny B. VillarSuper-Typhoon Yolanda was a loud wake-up call not only for the Philippines but for the whole world.

Last November 19, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon warned that the devastation wrought by Haiyan (Yolanda’s international name) gave urgency to the need for international action against global warming.

Speaking at the climate change conference in Warsaw, Poland under the auspices of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), Ban said: “Climate change threatens current and future generations. We need look no further than last week’s catastrophe in the Philippines. All around the world, people now face and fear the wrath of a warming planet.”

Local authorities found that all the preparations that were made in anticipation of the typhoon proved inadequate in the face of Yolanda. With sustained winds of 315 kilometers per hour (kph) and gusts as strong as 380 kph, Yolanda was probably the strongest typhoon ever recorded.

Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, who is concurrently chairman of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC), was quoted in news reports as saying the Philippines was not prepared for a typhoon a strong as Yolanda. The NDRRMC reported that as of November 22, the death toll from the typhoon that hit Eastern Visayas and nearby areas stood at 5,632 people, with another 1,759 missing and more than 26,000 injured. Damage was estimated at about P30.6 billion (P15 billion in agriculture and P15.6 billion in infrastructure. And, based on its latest, Yolanda has affected more than 10 million people, including almost four million who are still dependent on relief operations.

Global warming is bad for the world, but worse for the Philippines. The storm surge, which was blamed for the huge casualties and damage brought by Yolanda, affirmed the country’s unfortunate position as the third most vulnerable country in the world to natural disasters. The World Risk Index 2011, which was developed by the UN University Institute for Environment and Human Security, named Vanuatu and Tonga, respectively, as the first and second most vulnerable to natural disasters among 173 countries.

The ranking was based on each country’s exposure to hazards like earthquakes, storms, floods, drought, and sea level rise, as well as each country’s coping and adaptive capacity.

The Philippines is ranked third, but it has a lot more to lose than Vanuatu or Tonga. Vanuatu, an archipelago of 82 islands in the South Pacific Ocean, has an estimated population of 261,565 occupying a total land area of 12,189 square kilometers (sq. km.). The Polynesian Kingdom of Tonga, consisting of 169 islands, also in the South Pacific, has a total land area of 747 sq. km. and a population of 106,322.

Compared with Vanuatu and Tonga, the Philippines is a much larger archipelago of more than 7,100 islands with a total land area of 298,170 square kilometers and a population estimated by the World Bank at 96.71 million as of 2012. The Philippines has the fourth longest coastline in the world – 36,289 kilometers – behind Canada (202,080 km.), Indonesia (54,716 km.), and Russia (37,653 km.). This gives the Philippines some of the world’s most beautiful beaches; unfortunately, the long coastline also makes the country more vulnerable to giant waves.

The Philippines also lies along the Pacific Ring of Fire, where tectonic plates collide and about 90 percent of the world’s earthquakes and 81 percent of the largest earthquakes occur.

On July 16, 1990, Central Luzon was hit by a 7.8-magnitude earthquake, which created a 125-kilometer-long ground rupture and left more than 1,600 people dead. On August 16, 1976, the sea off Mindanao was hit by a 7.9-magnitude earthquake, which created a tsunami, killing more than 5,000 people and displacing more than 90,000 others. On June 15, 1991, the eruption of Mount Pinatubo, considered the second-largest volcanic eruption of this century, left more than 800 people dead, one million displaced, and buried a large part of Pampanga province in ash.

The Philippines also lies on the path of typhoons, with no other land mass to block the movement of storms from the Pacific Ocean. An average of 20 storms hit the country every year, and every year the storms become stronger and more destructive.

What we have now is a deadly combination of geographical and environmental (global warming) factors that leave us no alternative but to conduct a comprehensive and intense review of our disaster assessment and management plans.

We have to come up with risk reduction systems based on worst-case scenarios. Because of Yolanda, for example, wind resistance standards for structures should be raised above 300 kilometers per hour from the current 250 kph. (To be continued)

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