20 July 2016
Keynote Message at the Brahma Khumaris, SM Aura
The city where I lived almost my entire life gets the lion’s share of storms in the country every year. So when my husband Jesse was Mayor for 19 years, we would get so used to him being the first man out when there’s a storm coming, and the last man in, once the storm’s fury was over.
After resting, he’d be the first on the street cleaning up. Dealing with disasters was a major part of taking care of the city.
To emulate Jess while I was working in Congress, I would drop everything in Manila when I knew that storms were going to hit my district. I would go to the poorest communities, especially disaster-prone areas.
Once, I saw so many snakes also taking shelter in one of the local public schools we were visiting. I also remember meeting Merla Reyes, a more than 80-year old lady, who was taking care of her 32-year-old grandson. He was bedridden due to cerebral palsy.
I couldn’t quite understand why a really old woman who needed to be taken cared of herself, was looking after the needs of her grandson all by herself. I went inside her house and saw that it was no more than a 30-square-meter space that hardly protected them from the elements.
They were living in the dark. There was no lighting. It was no way to live for people in the pink of health, what more for two people who already needed extra attention and care.
Since then, I’ve posted about her on social media and so many kind hearts have donated materials for her house like pillows, a bag of groceries every month, and money so that the grandma no longer has to wash clothes by the river.
The poor, the old, the young, and those who have special needs are most vulnerable to natural disasters. This is not to belittle the fact that disasters and conflict can affect everyone, but it is harder for those who are vulnerable to recover and rebuild after storms, earthquakes, and other calamities.
For us who are committed to improving the lives of our people, it is very important that those who have been left behind by progress will be protected from calamities as well.
While getting to know the farthest reaches of my district, I was apalled when I realized that barangays didn’t have disaster plans. There was no clear information on which areas within their jurisdiction were vulnerable to what kinds of disasters.
There were no evacuation plans. Infrastructure to protect small communities from the sea and storm were not prioritized. People rebuilt their houses where dangers still existed.
Instead of coming up with a long-term plan, local leaders were content with distribution of canned goods and rice. You can imagine how this has been going on for years. Our people live in constant fear and trauma.
And things are bound to get worse.
There has been a 0.65˚C increase in the average global temperature from 1951 to 2010. This is expected to increase by 0.9 – 1.1˚C in the 2020s and by 1.8 – 2.2˚C in the 2050s. Hotter temperatures are associated with rise of sea levels threatening coastal areas, heavier rainfalls and general change in precipitation patterns.
Extreme storm surges and hurricanes happen more frequently, as we know and in fact are starting to experience. The financial toll of disasters on homes, buildings, properties is already heavy; how can we even begin to measure the effects of natural disasters on people’s sanity and emotional well-being?
According to the 2015 World Risk Index, the Philippines is the third among 171 countries most vulnerable to disaster risks and natural hazards. We experience an average of 20 tropical cyclones each year and other climatic and extreme weather aberrations such as the El Niño phenomenon.
These disasters strain government funds, with an average of P15 billion in annual direct damages. Both on a national level and a personal level, disasters wipe out resources and trap poor people in the pit of poverty.
With the rising costs of climate change both financially and emotionally, we can neither depend on the old ways of addressing them, nor can we continue the deleterious effects of patronage and the politics behind aid. Both the national and local level to work together to find solutions that best mitigate the consequences of climate change.
For instance, we need adaptation strategies that are easy for our communities to understand, learn, and adopt. We need to beat the drums to create awareness at the household level. But most of all, we need to include the communities themselves in creating these plans. This is where empowerment and participation is most crucial, because leaving a home and farm that has fed your family for years is a highly emotional event that most Filipinos do not want to do until it’s too late. Without their buy in and ownership, disaster plans will not work.
Republic Act 10174 established the People’s Survival Fund or PSF. This is a special fund in the National Treasury for the financing of adaptation programs and projects based on the National Strategic Framework.
The amount earmarked for this fund was initially P1 billion, but this may be augmented via donations, endowments, and contributions.
The fund may be used in adaptation activities in the areas of water resources management, land management, agriculture and fisheries, health, infrastructure development, natural ecosystems including mountainous and coastal ecosystems.
The fund also covers the improvement in monitoring of diseases triggered by climate change, forecasting and early warning systems, supports institutional development especially for local governments, can serve as guarantee for risks faced by farmers, agricultural workers and other stakeholders.
The PSF is a major step in the right direction. But our communities need to be trained on how to write proposals so that they can access this fund.
Then we have House Bill 4216, a bill we filed in the previous Congress, asking the government and even the private sector to take into account environmental impacts when they buy supplies, materials, and infrastructure projects.
We will also make sure that the houses and communities we will build as part of our mandate as Housing Secretary will be climate change-resilient, sustainable in terms of its use of energy, fuel, light, and water.
They will be spaces where people can feel safe, children can run and play, and be at peace with themselves and the world.
That’s because in all of these, the key component to success is creating a culture of resilience where inner strength and flexibility are stronger than despair and desperation. Concrete buildings can be rebuilt.
Houses can be constructed again. Funding can be obtained, but when a person is paralyzed by loss and completely devastated, the journey back will not be easy.
I have personally seen this in the course of my years of community work. I am grateful that there are institutions like Brahma Khumaris and individuals like Sister Jayanti who focus on the wounds that matter the most. May we all emulate your kindness and dedication to this work.
Thank you very much for listening to me today.