Philippines: Disaster Risk Reduction Saves Lives In Laguna

The province of Laguna, located a mere 30 kilometres outside the Philippines’ capital of Manila, is exposed to a multitude of hazards, the primary of which is flooding. The overflow from Laguna de Bay − the province’s largest lake – and inland rivers turn the farmlands into vast bodies of water due to heavy downpours, worsened by improper waste management. Over the years, flooding has damaged property, livelihoods, and the lives of the residences of the province.

In 2011, the World Food Programme (WFP) began its Disaster Preparedness and Response/Climate Change Adaptation Programme (DPR/CCA) Programme in disaster-prone provinces such as Laguna to help reduce the risks of such hazards. 

Establishing Emergency Response Teams

The Province of Laguna was one of the first local government units (LGUs) at the provincial level to partner with WFP for their disaster risk reduction management programme. Valentin Guidote Jr., Head of the Laguna Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office (PDRRMO), and his team looked to address the various challenges that the LGU had encountered time and time again during previous disasters.

“One problem we had prior to the programme was a streamlined response,” Valentin stated. “Although we had all the necessary equipment and had undergone a few trainings, we still had shortcomings in terms of response, especially at the municipal and barangay level.”

The communities of Laguna were used to being dependent on the PDRRMO to respond to disasters because of the lack of capacity at the municipal and barangay levels. The PDRRMO recognized this hurdle and looked to address it through the DPR/CCA Programme.

“We conducted various training of trainers (TOT) on vital capacity-building topics such as Camp Management, Contingency Planning, Geographic Information Systems, Damage and Needs Assessments, and Simulation Exercises. As members of the PDRRMO, we learned how to best utilize this knowledge for various emergency and disaster scenarios,” explained Valentin.

Recognizing that the first responders will always be the local government units, from the municipalities to the barangays, the PDRRMO proposed the TOT to improve knowledge across all levels so that they are equipped with the capacity and know-how to respond to any situation.

“The goal of the PDRRMO for the TOTs was to build an emergency response team for each locality. We wanted to establish a 911 system for the province and a hierarchy of response with the barangay being the first on location. If this proves to be a difficult task, the municipal LGU will then step in. We wanted to equip them with the capacity, so that we will only be involved in larger-scale emergencies.”

At present, this system has worked very well for the province. Coupled with information and education campaigns (IEC), the death tolls of recent emergencies has been drastically reduced.

“In some of the recent emergencies, we have been successful in achieving our goal of no casualties. In contrast to previous disasters, the norm was about 12-25 deaths,” said Valentin. “Thanks to this initiative as well as to various other projects and activities conducted through the DPR/CCA Programme, we have increased Laguna’s capacity to better prepare for and respond to disasters.”

Utilizing Solid Waste Management And Recycling To Reduce Risks

Alongside the Province of Laguna, two municipalities were selected to partake in the first year of the DPR/CCA Programme: Mabitac and Pila.

The municipality of Mabitac is a flood-prone community due to its catch basin role for its neighbouring municipalities.

“We experience about six to eight flooding occurrences each year, and because Mabitac is a fifth class municipality, it was very challenging for the municipal LGU to address the needs of the people during these situations due to lack of resources,” said Norbert “Norby” Tubana, Mabitac’s Municipal Disaster Risk Reduction Management Officer. “Despite our best efforts, we could not provide them with the help they needed, the help they deserved.”

Before the LGU identified the projects to be implemented through the programme, the Municipal Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council (MDRRMC) conducted assessments to determine Mabitac’s hazards and risks. It was through these assessments that improper solid waste management was identified as a large contributor to the flooding within the municipality. In response, the MDRRMC proposed to improve the municipality’s existing Materials Recovery Facility (MRF), not only to promote waste segregation and proper disposal, but to recycle materials into items which can be used by the community members. Through the programme, WFP provided various equipment such as an organic waste shredder and a bricket making machine to further enhance the MRF’s capability.

“It was through these assessments that improper solid waste management was identified as a large contributor to the flooding.”

“We knew that improving the MRF would be the solution to our waste disposal troubles, but we understood that without the community’s participation, it would just be another structure,” stated Norbert. “We then rolled out IECs. The IEC would be the perfect means of conveying this new project to the people of Mabitac that has guidelines on solid waste management such as proper waste segregation and where and when to dispose of the garbage.”

Designated areas and pick-up times were introduced to the residents of Mabitac as well as a small incentive to jumpstart the project.

“Getting the project rolling wasn’t easy because people weren’t about to suddenly start doing something they haven’t done before, so we gave them a temporary incentive: for every 60 kg of used plastic we collected, we gave them 1 kg of rice,” Norbert shared.

In the months that followed, the project became a success with members of the community segregating their solid waste. The MDRRMC then began to slowly phase out the rice incentive. “We wanted the people to realize that they are getting far more than rice when they participate, they are reducing their risks and saving their lives and livelihoods in the process. Now that there are no more incentives for the project, people still actively participate. It has become innate; proper waste segregation and disposal are now a habit,” said Norbert.

The MRF has also benefitted the community thanks to the products it produces. Paper charcoal bricks and plastic-induced hollow blocks for building were made available for the public to purchase, and these products are priced cheaper than their commercial counterparts. The price, however, does not speak for the quality of the items. In fact, the hollow blocks produced at the MRF are not only cheaper, but are larger and stronger as well. The LGU also practices what it preaches by using the MRF products for community projects such as fencing as well as in “clean and green” campaigns.

More than commercial benefits, however, the MRF has been an effective means of reducing the risk of flooding in Mabitac. “Simply put, the MRF and our other disaster risk reduction management efforts under the DPR/CCA Programme have been a success. If it used to take months for flood water to subside; now it only takes a few hours, if it even floods at all! We are grateful to WFP for their assistance. All these projects would not be possible for our municipality if it weren’t for the DPR/CCA Programme,” Norbert narrated.

“Now that there are no more incentives for the project, people still actively participate. It has become innate; proper waste segregation and disposal are now a habit.”

Changing Mind Sets

The municipality of Pila has also been plagued by flooding.  But in contrast to Mabitac, Pila’s troubles are largely caused by its various rivers which flow through the municipality, the largest of which is the Bulusukan river.

Under the watch of the Local Disaster Risk Reduction Management Officer Jerome Carillo, Pila has implemented various high-impact, small-scale community projects throughout their partnership with WFP, including a few addressing the vulnerabilities of the Bulusukan River, such as rapid siltation resulting to the river’s lower water holding capacity.  

With disaster preparedness in mind, the MDRRMC proposed to de-silt the river in order to increase its water holding capacity. Initially, this was to be done through the use of heavy equipment and machinery. However, to maximize the funding of USAID/OFDA channelled through WFP, as well as the LGU’s contributed funds, the Department of Social Welfare and Development’s Cash-for-Work Programme was sought. By utilizing the Cash-for-Work programme, locals of Pila were given temporary work while helping to improve their municipality. This also meant that the savings could be used for other disaster risk reduction projects.

One such activity was the planting of vetiver grass along the Bulusukan River. With roots that grow up to 3 metres in length, vetiver grass aided in stabilizing the soil surrounding the river and slowed down the siltation and erosion process.

To assist the LGU in improving its resource management during times of emergencies, WFP and Pila’s MDRRMC tapped the Ateneo Innovations Center to set up a Solar Rainwater Harvesting System. 

“The harvesting system has greatly benefitted our community. During times of disasters, the water collected by it serves as a key source of potable water for evacuees,” Jerome explained. “The percentage of the LGU’s DRR funds that we are able to save is reallocated for other expenses for the evacuees such as food and other important commodities.”

Jerome, who has worked with the community for five years, has seen first-hand how the community’s mentality on DRR has greatly improved. 

“It used to be very difficult for us to get the residents to evacuate. Even though a lot of them have experienced numerous disasters in the past, they simply refuse to leave their property due to the fear of having their belongings stolen,” recalled Jerome.

But thanks to IECs, the people of Pila now have a better understanding of the importance of the LGU’s DRR activities, including the implementation of pre-emptive evacuation.

“They now know that saving their lives is much more important than material objects. They have seen the difference that pre-emptive evacuation makes, and because we have equipped them with the know-how on what to do before disasters, they ensure that their belongings are also taken cared of when reports of an impending storm are announced.”

The LGU has also taken steps to ensuring the sustainability of their DRR efforts.

“Recently, the Sanguniang Bayan has approved Pila’s request to create and institutionalize my position as Local Disaster Risk Reduction Management Officer, so Pila now joins the only two cities within Laguna to have this position, and becomes the first fourth class municipality in the fourth district of Laguna to have such a post,” Jerome said proudly. “It is a huge step because this ensures the longevity and sustainability of Pila’s DRR efforts and strengthens us further to reach our zero casualty goal!”

Harnessing Scientific Technology For Better DRR

In 2012, the second year of the DPR/CCA Programme, WFP began to broaden the scope of the programme by tapping other local key stakeholders such as academic institutions. In Laguna, WFP asked the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB) campus to take the DRR-related scientific technology it developed to the local communities.

University Researcher Associate Thaddeus Lawas of the School of Environmental Science and Management at UPLB has been the co-head of the team which has implemented the DPR/CCA Programme in the province for three years.

Thaddeus’s interest in DRR was sparked when his family’s house was flooded during the downpour of Typhoon Xangsane, locally known as Milenyo, in 2006.

“I was really inspired to do more, so when we were approached by WFP, I saw it as an opportunity to do better, both on a personal level as well as from an academic standpoint,” shared Thaddeus. And it was this motivation that led Thaddeus and his team to utilize UPLB’s DRR-applicable scientific technology across the province.

One piece of technology which has been of great use to the communities has been the Automatic Weather Stations. Traditionally, LGUs relied on national or regional sources for weather updates, but this information is not often an accurate representation of the specific conditions of municipalities, making it harder for communities to coordinate their preparedness and response efforts. The solar-powered Automatic Weather Station has addressed this by providing LGUs with the capability to monitor a multitude of information such as wind speed, temperature, humidity, and rainfall, among others. 

“The installation of the automatic weather systems in the municipalities is a very important step in DRR. UPLB has provided the LGUs with their own “weather bureau”. The LGUs and their respective communities now have real-time information. Through the data that the LGUs collects, they can create their own observations and weather patterns which they can use as references for the future,” said Thaddeus.

Furthermore, these Automatic Weather Systems have been linked to the LGU’s Early Warning System. Alongside flood level sensors and sirens, the Automatic Weather Systems’ information feeds into the Early Warning System which is then broadcasted to the community. Each alarm signifies a response to do early preparations or conduct evacuations.

UPLB has also developed IEC materials for a wide variety of audiences in Laguna, and for Cagayan, another DPR/CCA Programme area, including various videos, radio plug-ins, and even an interactive CD covering topics on preparedness and response. But the University is looking to push the boundaries and make this information readily available on smart phones.

“We really want to empower communities. Our goal is to build communities and push boundaries. We want to minimize casualties and save livelihoods and especially lives.”

“We’re at the age of the smart phones, and we know it’s a platform which we can tap in order to spread the message and importance of DRR,” stated Thaddeus. “We are currently looking into developing an application version of the interactive CD which can be downloaded on iOS and Android operating systems. To have such important information before, during, and after emergencies is an important tool which can save lives.”

UPLB has also conducted a documentation of the best practices from the first year of implementation of the DPR/CCA Programme in Laguna and Cagayan province, and this study will serve as a valuable source of information for future DRR efforts.

“We really want to empower communities. Our goal is to build communities and push boundaries. We want to minimize casualties and save livelihoods and especially lives.”

Since 2011, WFP has been helping build resilience in the Philippines with innovative, high-impact projects across 10 provinces, 40 municipalities, seven cities, and partnering with nine academic institutions and eight non-government organizations. The DPR/CCA Programme is supported by the United States Agency for International Development Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, private partner Yum! and in collaboration with the Department of Social Welfare and Development, Department of the Interior and Local Government, and the Office of Civil Defense.