MANILA, 8 October 2008 (IRIN) - About 20 typhoons hit each year and earthquakes occur frequently as the island nation lies within the so-called "Ring of Fire" in Asia.
The last deadly earthquake struck Luzon Island in 1990, killing about 1,600 people. The country has become more adept at disaster preparedness and mitigation measures that substantially reduced the risk of deaths.
"We are better prepared than most countries in risk management when it comes to disasters," Mayfourth Luneta, project coordinator of the Citizens' Disaster Response Centre, which deals with disaster-risk reduction, told IRIN. "This is one area where we are not only good on paper but also in practice."
Luneta said collaboration between national and local government, NGOs and other agencies in disaster situations had vastly improved even compared with just a few years ago.
Last year's massive evacuation in the Bicol region due to the threat posed by Typhoon Mina (also known as Mitag) demonstrated the improved coordination among stakeholders. About 250,000 people were quickly evacuated to temporary shelters before the typhoon even hit.
The tragic experience of Typhoon Reming in 2006 galvanised officials and residents alike to be better prepared. Reming killed 1,200 people and left 200,000 homeless in the Bicol region.
National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC) deputy administrator and spokesman Anthony Golez said improving disaster preparedness was a policy laid out in 2005 by the Arroyo government. "The President has always believed than an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure," Golez told IRIN.
To this end, the NDCC, with other government agencies, conducts quarterly earthquake drills in schools, builds emergency evacuation sites, conducts tsunami drills and exchanges information on early warning systems to familiarise the public on what to do in case of natural disasters.
Luneta said early response to potential risk was being initiated at the community level as local officials become more aware of preparedness. Best practices in Albay, Camarines Norte and other provinces prone to natural disasters were being adapted to other vulnerable areas. "The response of local government units is very encouraging," Luneta said.
While the Philippines may score high in emergency response, Ramon Padilla, secretary-general of the Disaster Risk Reduction Network, told IRIN the country still lacked an institutionalised framework to cover the entire gamut of disaster response - from preparation, risk mitigation and emergency response to reconstruction and rehabilitation.
"For instance, why is it that classrooms are always used as evacuation centres, why is it that we are vulnerable to flash floods? Why can't we plant rice varieties that would withstand the strongest typhoons?" Padilla asked.
Overall, Padilla said government and public response to disaster was still reactive, although he acknowledged there had been improvements in collaboration. "But we still don't have an overall policy from the national to the local level."
The national framework on disaster preparedness is based on Presidential Decree 1566, a 30-year-old edict issued by then President Marcos. It created the NDCC, comprising government agencies.
NGOs have been lobbying the Congress to pass the Disaster Risk Management Bill, to create a separate department for disaster preparedness. At present, it falls under the Department of National Defence. The bill, which is being pushed by Padilla's group, is up for consideration in both Houses of Congress.
The lack of an overall policy is evident in the calamity fund allocations for local government units, said Padila. Under present budget allocations, each unit is supposed to set aside 5 percent of its internal revenue allotment.
This means the poorest municipalities will only have about 100,000 pesos (US$2,222) a year to respond to disasters, although national funds may be added later. Padilla said this small amount would not cover immediate emergency expenses.
Under the bill, the proposed department would have a budget of its own to cover all components of disaster preparedness and response.