On December 16, 2021, the super typhoon “Odette” (international name: Rai) hit land as a category 5 typhoon in the Philippines, causing over 400 deaths and an estimated damage of over half a billion dollars to infrastructure and agricultural production. This is hardly an unprecedented disaster for the Philippines. A study by the Asian Development Bank puts the cost of successive typhoons for the country between 1990 and 2020 at $ 20 billion.
In response, the Philippine government and its partners have mobilized to reduce the risks and costs of disasters through improved disaster risk reduction and rapid response mechanisms. The country has made important progress in building its disaster management system at all levels of government. Public spending on disaster risk reduction was over $ 3 billion in 2019.
In comparison, the recent announcement by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs to invest $ 7.5 million in predictive action in the country seems almost insignificant from a budgetary perspective. But it has the potential to fundamentally change the way the Philippines effectively contain disasters. Forward-looking measures support vulnerable families after an impending typhoon is detected and before they hit land so they can take action to prevent the catastrophic effects of storms on their lives. It empowers people to take action before disaster strikes.
At Odette, the United Nations did not initiate any proactive measures, although non-governmental organizations have put in place similar mechanisms. The reasons why Odette does not take forward-looking measures in advance must be analyzed and better understood in order to improve future responses. It is likely that the rapid development of the typhoon itself, the novelty of the initiative, and limited funding played a role.
However, effective predictive action also requires understanding of the level of preparedness of individuals and communities for typhoons. Currently, the trigger for proactive action is only based on environmental factors (typhoon intensity and course). Risks to individuals and communities are sometimes not adequately considered because such data are not readily available. In fact, forward-looking action at this point remains blind to the level of willingness, vulnerability and resilience of the population along the typhoon trails. A nationwide study we conducted at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) in 2017 found that most Filipinos feel unprepared for typhoons and are unaware of many key containment measures. However, this study is four years old, and recent efforts are not reflected in these data. New granular data are necessary so that timely, reliable information about the “human terrain” can trigger predictive action.
To improve predictive action, disaster-related data on preparedness and resilience at the individual and community levels must be routinely collected and made publicly available, just as the government must ensure the routine collection of demographics, health and economic indicators data to guide public investment. This is a necessary step to ensure that solid data and evidence will help fuel investment and public action, and ultimately save lives in the face of recurring disasters, particularly in the Philippines.
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Lea Ivy Manzanero, MA, is the HHI Project Leader conducting research on the HHI’s Resilient Communities Program in the Philippines. Mark Toldo is a communications specialist for the Resilient Communities Program at HHI. Vincenzo Bollettino, Ph.D., is the director of the Resilient Communities Program at HHI. Patrick Vinck, Ph.D., Director of Research at HHI, is an Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.
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