On Typhoon Pablo, DRRM and systems thinking

Written for PLAN 210. Unfortunately I seem to have waylaid the diagram mentioned here–maybe I can get around to resketching it, someday.


One emerging challenge for local governments is disaster risk reduction and management (DRRM), or the need to holistically respond to extreme climate events that increasingly pose threats to life and property. This can be seen in the recent experience of Typhoon Pablo, which completely devastated many municipalities in the eastern seaboard of Mindanao. As per the 17 January 2013 report of the DSWD Disaster Risk Reduction and Response Operations Office (DRRROO), a total of total of 504,857 families with 2.2 million persons have been affected in 2,631 barangays, 292 municipalities, 35 cities, 33 provinces in 10 regions, with particular emphasis on Davao Oriental, Compostela Valley and some parts of the Caraga Region. Although the onslaught of said typhoon was experienced as a single event (cited as a once-in-a-century storm) that has direct linear effects, further analysis of the situation reveals complex cyclical cause-effect patterns that must be factored into any plan of action.

The attached diagram attempts to illustrate some of these cyclical connections, which map out both the interlocking causes and effects of said climate event, as well as the multiple areas of work that must be planned out in order to arrive at durable and sustainable solutions towards post-disaster reconstruction and development.

This diagram also makes apparent that context-specific nuancing is necessary: although there are general broad categories for both cause/effects and areas of intervention, it is clear that the situation in Davao Oriental must also be seen as slightly different from the situation in Compostela Valley. For example: in the former, a cyclone (ipo-ipo) uprooted entire banana and coconut plantations clean from their roots and destroyed fishing boats that were both left docked by the sea and those that were brought to shore—thereby eliminating all primary sources of livelihood. While in Compostela Valley, as in the case of New Bataan, the extreme flooding was exacerbated by extensive (illegal) small-scale mining and logging in the area, causing immense flurries of mud and rocks to mire whole communities and leaving once-fertile lands totally inhabitable and unfarmable.

However, on a larger scale, Pablo is also connected to the massive change in climate patterns worldwide. Whereas previous generations of Dabawenyos may have boasted that their part of the world was below the typhoon belt and therefore never subject to flooding, the likelihood of repeated Pablos (a point driven home by the ongoing raining and floods in the same areas as I type) poses a major challenge to all aspects of local development planning. Entire municipalities may have to be resettled in elsewhere; the banana and coconut industry, so vulnerable to extreme weather, may have to migrate to other areas (say, Central Mindanao), threatening peoples’ direct livelihood as well as related forward and backward economic linkages.

This is why systems thinking is crucial to development planning, on both the national and local level, as it gives one an appreciation that any on-the-ground work is made up of multiple interlocking complex systems where inter-related actions fully develop their effects only after some period of time. Systems thinking is also a go-to frame for any serious development work, as this particular way of seeing factors in delay and feedback loops which in the short-term can often be ignored, but will inevitably come back as serious planning problems in the long term. Clearly, DRRM is one such area where this discipline must come into play—where all short-term, mid-term and long-term policy decisions must be informed by the dynamics of the underlying structures generating change and their resultant circles of causality.

Government’s current approach to this issue—through the current mechanism of the interagency Task Force Pablo—can be said to be somewhat informed by this kind of appreciation. The Aquino administration generally utilizes the cluster approach, and the same can be observed here, where all interventions are clustered into thematic working groups: social services, infrastructure, livelihood, education, health, and resettlement. All programs, projects and activities in the short-term, mid-term and long-term are coursed through these clusters, with the understanding that the complexity of the situation requires cross-cutting interventions that factor in inputs from all agencies involved.

For example: immediate relief services notwithstanding, it is clear that all efforts for rehabilitation and reconstruction must be informed by clear data on flood maps and emerging climate patterns for the next 50 years. DOST (through Project NOAH) and the DENR-MGB has therefore been tasked to set clear guidance on no-build zones and safe areas in all affected areas, all of which must be strictly enforced. All resettlement and the rehabilitation of infrastructure such as roads, school buildings, health centers will be planned accordingly. (Incidentally, deadline for said data is February 27.)

The plot thickens when other factors come into play. For example, as in the case of New Bataan, it is likely that entire municipalities will have to be resettled—which becomes more complicated given issues of cultural sensitivity (many indigenous peoples communities having been affected), property rights (will they be able to come back and farm or work in their old lands), mental health (for beneficiaries as well as the relief workers), as well as plain old people-not-wanting-to-leave places-they-call-home. Another exacerbating factor is the question of governance—will displaced LCEs be willing to given up their IRAs? And given the fact that Davao-Comval-Caraga is a priority area when it comes to operations against the CPP/NPA/NDF—how can reconstruction and rehabilitation be conducted in such a way that is sensitive to the needs of the peace process?

One concrete example of the use of systems thinking in problem-solving is in the clearing of felled trees in plantation areas. One immediate social protection intervention is the use of the DA and DSWD of the Cash-For-Work program, where beneficiaries can do tree clearing (or shelter construction and other key tasks) for ten days and be paid a daily fee amounting to 70% of the standard daily wage. The DA has also flagged the need to immediately cut and clear rotting and damaged trees that may cause coconut diseases and pests that may spread to coconut plantations in surrounding regions, to which the suggestion is to cut and clear all coconut trees in these provinces and use them as lumber for the construction of shelters and school buildings. To address the need for power saws, the DENR has suggested to use chainsaws confiscated from illegal loggers in CARAGA, which were likely to have exacerbated the flooding in the first place.  Similar thought processes may be used for other key concerns, which therefore factors in the depth and breadth of the given situation.

At the end of the day, however, the goal is to put in place enough interventions that can achieve a certain degree of normalcy, or at least a larger sense of safety and security for these communities, where people can feel safe enough, and empowered enough to work and study again, with the understanding that relief operations must only be a temporary measure.

Similarly, there must be an understanding that the situation of Pablo is something that has come before (cf Sendong, Ondoy and all those other atmospheric personalities) and may probably come again—and so general DRRM policy, such as the full operationalization of RA 10121, the Philippine DRRM Act of 2010 must therefore come into play. DRRM cannot only be a pet buzzword for development agencies, to be thrown around as a mere academic or budgetary exercise. Nor can disaster relief be limited to short-term stopgap measures. The full gamut of work must be done: community organizing, training, planning, equipping, stockpiling, hazard mapping, insuring of assets, and public information and education initiatives, as well as the thornier questions of infrastructure climate-proofing, dealing with exacerbating issues such as mining and logging, as well as all-encompassing issues of politics, policy and governance.

Of course, this is easier said than done. But when lives are at risk, the development of more complex core competencies, principles and practices are not just a standard activity, but an ethical imperative—especially for development planners.