How the Philip­pines learned from dis­as­ter

The Myanmar Times - Weekend - - World - SEPTEM­BER 21, 2018 AMANDA ERICK­SON

TWO ma­jor storms have struck half a world apart. Hur­ri­cane Florence doused the south­east­ern United States with more than 30 inches of rain, lead­ing to “cat­a­strophic” flood­ing. Nearly 9000 miles away, Ty­phoon Mangkhut – the strong­est storm this year so far – bat­tered the Philip­pines be­fore veer­ing over China and Hong Kong. It left at least 88 peo­ple dead and 64 oth­ers miss­ing, many in land­slides that buried homes and fam­i­lies alive.

This may seem like a co­in­ci­dence, but ex­perts say it’s more like the new nor­mal. Cli­mate change ex­ac­er­bates ex­treme weather by rais­ing ocean tem­per­a­tures, which tur­bocharges storms and tor­na­does and amps up rain and flood­ing. “Ty­phoons, hur­ri­canes and all trop­i­cal storms draw their vast en­ergy from the warmth of the sea,” said Will St­ef­fen, di­rec­tor of Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity’s Cli­mate Change In­sti­tute, to the Guardian in 2013. “We know sea-sur­face tem­per­a­tures are warm­ing pretty much around the planet, so that’s a pretty di­rect in­flu­ence of cli­mate change on the na­ture of the storm.”

It’s a scary new re­al­ity. But in the Philip­pines, at least, there is a bright side: The gov­ern­ment seems to be get­ting bet­ter at re­spond­ing to nat­u­ral dis­as­ters, and of­fi­cials have ap­plied the les­sons of Ty­phoon Haiyan, which struck in 2013, to mit­i­gate the ef­fects of Mangkhut.

Haiyan, dubbed a “su­per ty­phoon,” was a Cat­e­gory 5 storm with winds of up to 195 mph – the high­est speeds ever recorded at the time. The ty­phoon hit the Philip­pines at nearpeak strength, es­sen­tially lev­el­ling the city of Ta­cloban. A tsunami-like storm surge flooded the city in min­utes; in some places, the wa­ter was 30 feet deep. An ocean freighter was blown in­land, crush­ing sev­eral homes and build­ings. Winds tore the roofs off gov­ern­ment shel­ters.

As The New York Times vividly re­counted: “When the sea rose over much of Ta­cloban, huge waves sent float­ing cars crash­ing again and again into the drowned bod­ies that lined the out­side walls of one school. That sent sprays of blood re­peat­edly across the school’s win­dows, ter­ror­is­ing the chil­dren shel­ter­ing in­side.”

The gov­ern­ment es­ti­mates that at least 6000 peo­ple drowned or went miss­ing. An­other 4 mil­lion lost their homes.

The les­sons of Haiyan In the days and weeks af­ter the cri­sis, sur­vivors strug­gled to ac­cess ba­sic sup­plies. Gangs of armed loot­ers roamed the streets, and ri­ot­ing made it nearly im­pos­si­ble for the Red Cross and other aid groups to reach those in need. Air­ports could not open; the elec­tri­cal grid was de­mol­ished.

It took weeks – and the ar­rival of a US air­craft car­rier, which could send sup­plies and sol­diers by he­li­copter – for calm to be re­stored.

The hor­rors of Haiyan shaped how the gov­ern­ment re­built the city. It placed stronger shel­ters on high ground and al­lowed in­ter­na­tional pub­lic-health groups to launch a tetanus vac­cine pro­gramme. The dis­ease had spread quickly af­ter Haiyan, which blew apart wooden homes and scat­ter­ing boards with rusty nails on nearly ev­ery road. The storm also scat­tered a heavy layer of palm fronds on the ground, mask­ing the dis­ease­car­ry­ing ob­jects un­der­neath.

As news of Mangkhut spread, of­fi­cials had a much clearer idea of what to do. Au­thor­i­ties be­gan de­liv­er­ing food and clean wa­ter ahead of the storm in order to make sure peo­ple could ac­cess life­sav­ing goods even if roads and air­ports were closed. Po­lice of­fi­cers and sol­diers pre­pared to head to storm-rav­aged ar­eas quickly to main­tain order and help with res­cue ef­forts. Thou­sands were evac­u­ated late last week, be­fore Mangkhut hit.

The re­sult of these ef­forts is that Mangkhut, a storm nearly as pow­er­ful as Haiyan, has pro­duced many fewer fa­tal­i­ties. There were 88 con­firmed deaths in the Philip­pines at the time of writ­ing, a num­ber “far lower than of­fi­cials had feared in the days be­fore the storm made land­fall early Satur­day on the Philip­pines’ largest and most pop­u­lous is­land,” The New York Times re­ported. The pa­per did cau­tion that “it could be days or weeks be­fore the storm’s true hu­man toll is known.”

Good news, and bad Still, the or­gan­ised re­sponse is a rare bit of good cli­mate-change news for the Philip­pines. A re­cent sur­vey from HSBC Bank’s cli­mate-re­search arm said the coun­try is more vul­ner­a­ble to cli­mate change than nearly any­where else in the world. The Philip­pines – a col­lec­tion of more than 7000 is­lands – is hit by an av­er­age of 20 cy­clones a year. If cur­rent cli­mate trends con­tinue, USAID pre­dicts that ris­ing tem­per­a­tures will se­verely dam­age the coun­try’s agri­cul­tural base, caus­ing wa­ter short­ages, pop­u­la­tion dis­place­ment and an in­creased spread of dis­eases.

So it’s not sur­pris­ing that the Philip­pines takes the threat of cli­mate change se­ri­ously. The gov­ern­ment in­vests 2 per­cent of the na­tional bud­get in cli­mate-change adap­ta­tion and risk re­duc­tion. It has pledged to cut its car­bon emis­sions 70 per­cent by 2030, one of the most am­bi­tious tar­gets in the world.

But to stave off even more dis­as­ter, an in­ter­na­tional re­sponse is nec­es­sary. Years ago, sci­en­tists warned that if global tem­per­a­tures rose more than 2 de­grees Cel­sius, there would be mas­sive dis­place­ment thanks to ris­ing seas, ex­treme food and wa­ter short­ages and a more hos­tile and vi­o­lent world. Now, even if ev­ery coun­try cuts its car­bon emis­sions in line with the 2015 Paris cli­mate agree­ment, ex­perts say we’ll still see tem­per­a­tures rise by at least 3 de­grees.

“Even if coun­tries ful­fill their pledges, emis­sions will keep ris­ing glob­ally through 2030, and with­out any sign of stop­ping,” said Columbia Univer­sity econ­o­mist Scott Bar­rett to PBS. “And there’s no way you can meet any tem­per­a­ture tar­get as long as emis­sions keep ris­ing. The only way you can sta­bilise the cli­mate is if global emis­sions head to­ward zero.”

In other words: In a world with unchecked warm­ing, dis­as­ter pre­pared­ness will only get vul­ner­a­ble coun­tries like the Philip­pines so far.

– The Wash­ing­ton Post

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