Instead of relying on bureaucracy to address pressing disaster management weaknesses in the Philippines, President Marcos Jr.’s administration might consider strengthening the grassroots to avoid more disasters.
In November 2022, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. surveyed the devastation wreaked by Tropical Storm Nalgae in Maguindanao province, Mindanao. Seeing the bare mountains in the disaster-stricken areas during his flight, the president attributed the damage to widespread deforestation, inferior flood-control infrastructure, and inadequate disaster planning. Nalgae cost the country US$45.6 million and affected more than three million people, particularly farmers, fisherfolk, and low-income households.
Natural hazards are not unusual for the Philippines but the likelihood of them occurring again, with more severe effects, is high. Based on the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), extreme weather events in the Philippines will become more frequent and intense because of climate change.
However, the crux of the matter lies in the country’s disaster preparedness. The World Risk Report 2022 ranked the Philippines as the most at-risk country in the world due to the country’s exposure to various hazards and its vulnerability. This is exacerbated by domestic risk drivers such as widening poverty and inequality, sluggish economic development, rapid urbanisation, poor governance, and weak political institutions.
The World Risk Report highlights the urgent need for comprehensive responses to disaster risk reduction and management in the Philippines. The passage of Republic Act No. 10120 (or the Philippine Disaster Risk Reduction and Management (DRRM) Act of 2010) was a good start. However, problems such as lack of horizontal and vertical coordination among stakeholders, inadequate human and financial resources, and insufficient capacity, persist.
A recurring knee-jerk response by politicians every time the Philippines suffers from disasters is to file legislation that will create new agencies to tackle the shortfalls of disaster policies. One such initiative is the proposed Department of Disaster Resilience (DDR), which failed to pass through the legislature in recent years despite being a priority of the previous administration. The DDR was meant to consolidate disaster-related agencies and supplant the inter-agency model of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) — which currently includes the government, NGOs, and the private sector — to minimise bureaucratic hurdles.
President Marcos Jr. stated his interest in establishing a new department for disaster management a few days after his inauguration but has seemingly changed his stance. He instead reiterated support for his sister Senator Imee Marcos’ proposal that the NDRRMC be strengthened and placed under the Office of the President (OP). The president asked officials to consider modelling the body after the U.S.’ Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) – a centralised agency tasked to coordinate disaster aid and response.
The two proposals are similar — to centralise the NDRRMC’s structure instead of it merely coordinating disaster recovery and emergency efforts. One difference will be that coordination would avoid incurring costs associated with creating a separate department.
On 30 April 2023, however, in a move that seemed to push lawmakers into prioritising the formation of a new disaster body, President Marcos Jr. signed Executive Order (EO) No. 24, forming the Disaster Response and Crisis Management Task Force (DRCMTF). This supposedly temporary body would oversee and coordinate the planning, and monitoring and evaluation of disaster preparedness and response plans.
This announcement was met with scepticism, given the DRCMTF’s potential to duplicate the NDRRMC’s functions. The administration countered that the NDRRMC will concentrate on developing long-term policies on disaster prevention and rehabilitation, while the DRCMTF will focus on the operational and immediate impacts of disasters. The DRCMTF would theoretically act as a “transition mechanism” pending the creation of a permanent disaster-related agency.
The task force will have to hit the ground running, operating far more efficiently than the NDRRMC as the country anticipates the arrival of the next calamity. But history repeats itself: in 2020, then president Rodrigo Duterte signed EO No. 120, creating the Build Back Better Task Force (BBBTF) to rationalise and expedite typhoon rescue, relief, and recovery efforts. This was meant to be a stop-gap measure while awaiting the passage of the proposed DDR but the bill was not adopted during his presidency.
Solving disaster risk reduction and management (DRRM) problems and the climate crisis should be inclusive and participatory.
Will any of Marcos Jr.’s disaster-related legislation succeed this time around?
There is no doubt that the NDRRMC needs a major overhaul but the new president’s creation of any new agency or organisation will not solve the country’s problems in DRRM if underlying issues challenging disaster management are left unresolved.
According to a review of the DRRM Law, the structure for formulating and implementing disaster policies continues to be predominantly top-down. Affected communities are sidelined and have insignificant influence over decision-making despite the law highlighting the importance of community-based DRR. Unfortunately, the proposed DDR bills under Marcos Jr. call for the abolition of local DRRM Councils and seek to replace them with local DRRM Offices, which potentially deters NGOs from actively participating in DRRM planning processes.
Additionally, there is insufficient awareness and capacity among some local governments – the frontliners during disasters – given their inadequate expertise in creating risk assessments and development plans that incorporate DRRM. Elite-driven, non-participatory politics in the Philippines also means disempowering local government units (LGUs), a disconnect with stakeholders, and poor implementation of DRRM strategies.
Solving DRRM problems and the climate crisis should be inclusive and participatory. Without addressing the issues mentioned, the Philippines will continue to be highly vulnerable to disasters and have limited capacity to mitigate their effects, especially given a worsening climate and an El Niño phenomenon expected in the second half of 2023 through early 2024.
Cherry Ann Madriaga obtained her Ph.D. from the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, Japan and is a co-host of the Usapang Econ podcast.