Long processions of women and children walked along the margins of the street holding white candles, the elderly prayed in front of sacred statues in the intimacy of their flourishing gardens, fisherman put their fishing boats in safe, all of them desperately hoping for God’s mercy. In Barangay, the smallest administrative division in the Philippines, captains were gathered for a special meeting at the city hall to coordinate and activate the disaster protocol. This is how the small island of Camiguin in Philippines’ southern Mindanao Region prepared last Thursday for Typhoon Hagupit, locally called Ruby, expected to violently hit the country during the weekend.
Zero causality approach: evacuation rather than rescue
On Friday morning the island awoke under heavy rain, with the sound of the megaphones inviting all the families, especially the ones living in the flimsy homes close to the seashore, to prepare for early evacuation. Classes at local schools were suspended even before the typhoon had entered the Philippines area. Over 1 million people were evacuated in a country haunted by the fear of another storm as destructive as Hayan, the strongest typhoon on record that left more than 7000 people dead or missing after it struck in November 2013.
This years’ response to the Early Warnings showed major improvements when compared to last years’. As stated by the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction Chief “The Philippines government has done an excellent job on putting into action the lessons learned from typhoon Hayan. All arms of government (….) have pulled together to save and minimize the losses”. This is especially true with regard to early evacuation. The municipalities started evacuation operations 3-4 days before the expected typhoon, in order to prepare the city for relief goods and to provide transportation to evacuate at-risk areas safely.
Typhoon Hagupit turned out to be much weaker than expected; nevertheless, it proved the country’s readiness in responding to natural disasters.
Many people who were evacuated to emergency shelters started to troop back home already by Saturday, after the typhoon had blown passed the southern and central provinces. The island of Camiguin, for example, experienced only intermittent rains that didn’t cause any damage.
What remained after the storm was a suffocating heat and a mild sun covered by heavy clouds, children laughing as they splashed through puddles in their flip-flops, old women sitting outside the house doors chatting as usual and fisherman preparing their equipment for fishing again.
Typhoons as reminders for climate change
In 2014 a typhoon made its way through the debates of the on-going UN Climate Change Conference in Lima.
The powerful speech delivered at last year’s summit by Philippines representative Yeb Sano is still fresh in peoples’ minds. He broke into tears while appealing for urgent actions after typhoon Hayan hit the country: “We have to take action to prevent a future were super typhoons become a way of life, loss and damage”. He added, “We can fix it, we can stop this madness”.
While it is true that measures to prevent climate change have been strongly advocated in the last few years and have to stay in the frontline of the debates, it is also true that, at this very moment more than ever there’s a need to look for mechanisms that could support countries dealing with the unavoidable consequences. Mary Ann Lucille Sering, secretary of the Philippines climate change commission stated Monday “The impacts of climate change are beyond our capacity already”.
It cannot be denied anymore that there are impacts of climate change that cannot be avoided or adapted to, and that dramatically result in loss of life, livelihoods, ecosystems, cultures or potentially whole nations in the case of low-lying island nations threatened by rising sea levels.
The UN climate debates are proposing mechanisms to deal with “damages and losses” that would essentially require the countries who have contributed the most to climate-changing emissions assume responsibility by sharing knowledge and technology, as well as giving financial assistance to particularly vulnerable countries.
Failure is not an option. The need to control the factors that contribute to climate change and manage the loss and damages are becoming a matter of survival for the Philippines and other vulnerable nations of the world. This is a desperate scream of help coming from those people for whom floodings and typhoons have become a way of life.
(This article was written on the 9 December 2014)