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Yolanda to test DOTC response

At least two airports, based on the latest reports I have seen, have been badly damaged – Tacloban and Busuanga. Both airports have been put back into operation, barely, just enough to bring out the tourists in Coron in the case of Busuanga, and to take in relief flights and limited commercial flights from Cebu in the case of Tacloban.

Typhoon Yolanda caused a human tragedy of epic proportions. But beyond the relief and rescue operations, there must be people in government who should be thinking of long term moves in the light of what has happened.

With all the seriously damaged infrastructure, there is no doubt emergency measures ought to be done quickly if lives are to return to normal. A make shift airport terminal building in Tacloban was needed yesterday. There are damaged bridges, washed out roads, knocked down utility lines that cry out for a quick fix.

Without minimizing the need to immediately address the massive human suffering – the food and medical needs - in the aftermath of Yolanda, there is also a need to plan how we can make things better for the future.

Here is a chance to do it right. Most surely, we need better designed infrastructure that can withstand increasingly strong typhoons and the earthquakes that seem to come at closer intervals.

Indeed, in the case of Tacloban and Busuanga airports, Yolanda gave us the opportunity to start with a clean slate. The Tacloban airport was in the headlines prior to Yolanda’s onslaught, but for a different kind of storm – a political one over pork barrel funds.

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The son of the late Kokoy Romualdez, who is now a congressman from Leyte, complained that DBM reallocated funds meant to modernize the airport to DAP. Romualdez was suggesting political vendetta as the motive behind the reallocation.

Budget Sec. Butch Abad, however, explained that he merely reallocated funds that DOTC didn’t seem to have an immediate need for. The legality of DAP aside, I see nothing wrong with what Sec. Butch did.

The fault was entirely DOTC’s… for failure to quickly implement the Tacloban airport modernization. What Sec Butch did was what a prudent treasurer or funds manager in a private corporate setting would have done.

Why should government have to borrow fresh funds to finance other needs and pay interest on those borrowed funds when there are idle funds elsewhere in the government system?

While the idle Tacloban airport funds didn’t look like savings that could be realigned to DAP, it was nevertheless idle. DBM should be able to use it on the condition that it is replenished immediately when DOTC is finally ready to get its work done.

Now, there are those who would say that DOTC’s dilly dallying paid off. If DOTC was more on the ball, that new airport would have been blown away by Yolanda anyway. But that’s silly. We have to build good airports and in places like Tacloban, designed to withstand furious typhoons.

Anyway, we can now start fresh. Because there is an immediate need for an airport terminal in Tacloban, DOTC cannot go on its usual turtle approach to projects. They will have to build a world class airport in record time.

It is the same thing in Busuanga. The airport there was close to make shift anyway and Yolanda may have done the Coron tourism industry a big favor by blowing it away. Now they can fast track a new airport that will not put the country to shame.

I don’t know about you folks, but given the state of emergency, I have extremely serious doubts the DOTC guys can muster a sense of urgency to fast track anything. What worries me is that the makeshift structures that will be put up will slowly become permanent… permanently inadequate.

If anything is to happen right and quickly, P-Noy will have to take a direct hand and ask the private sector to take over. I am sure there will be sufficient private sector interest to build a decent Tacloban airport quickly.

A good terminal building for a place like Tacloban should be attractive for a conglomerate like JG Summit with its mall and airline interests and experiences converging. The SM Group will also not be far behind if such an opportunity presents itself.

As for Busuanga, I know for a fact that there is interest from the owners of Discovery Shores, even before Yolanda, to build a decent airport there that can take in even an A320. I understand they are planning a world class resort in the area and that will pay off only if they have a good airport connectivity.

I am aware of a long pending Busuanga airport project which DOTC wants to build itself. They are studying it. As you can see, it has not happened.

I am worried that DOTC’s clueless and anti-private sector usecs will take their sweet time drafting the terms of reference for a PPP project to build new airports in Tacloban and Busuanga. There should be enough experience by now to come up with a fair TOR that protects the public interest nature of the airports as well as recognizing the profit motivations of the proponents.

For one thing, this will not be the first time if it happens. San Miguel is already building and operating that airport in Caticlan. The TOR used there could be a pattern for Tacloban and Busuanga.

It is my feeling that only a private sector led effort for the airports will get those airports up quickly, if the NAIA 1 upgrade situation is any indication. In a PPP, we have one bidding and the winner takes care of everything else without worrying about government procurement rules.

I hope P-Noy is not too busy with the nitty gritties of providing emergency aid to the Yolanda victims that he has no time to think of what must be done to infrastructure in Yolanda’s wake. Whatever happens… P-Noy must make sure his DOTC boys don’t sleep on the job again on this one… as they are usually prone to do.

Calamity aid

There is an interesting article posted by Interaksyon datelined Sydney warning about potential wastage of aid to typhoon victims. Experts insist that some thought must be given on the type of aid and the distribution system.

The Philippines must learn from the mistakes made in the relief effort after the catastrophic 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the experts said. That experience nine years ago, sparked heated debate about the size, form, and deployment of assistance.

According to the article, some observers, including the British Red Cross, complained that relief effort are hampered by rivalries between agencies, delivery of inappropriate aid, and difficulty in managing the huge sums of money donated.

“Others said much of the reconstruction funding that was promised was never actually distributed, while money was squandered due to corruption, mismanagement, and unnecessary duplication of aid efforts.”

Martin Mulligan, chief investigator on an Australian research project conducted for AusAID on what could be learned from the post-tsunami recovery, said it was important to get it right this time. “The immediate post-tsunami relief effort was impressive, but many mistakes were made – perhaps inevitably – in the targeting of aid for long-term social recovery,” he said.

“Aid organizations undoubtedly have more to learn from post-tsunami success stories about how to work within traumatized communities in order to ensure that aid funding is well targeted and effective.”

Paul Arbon, director of the government-run Torrens Resilience Institute in South Australia that was set up to improve the capacity of organizations to respond to disasters, the article said, agreed more thought must be put into the relief effort.

“Foremost, it is important that we make donations with thought and care. Typically, the well-meaning efforts of communities around the world result in an unmanageable influx of all kinds of goods into disaster zones and this create a log jam in ports and airports that disables more targeted disaster relief.”

Arbon added that “the most difficult phase of disaster relief will occur over the coming months and years when communities will struggle to find the support that they need as the world’s attention moves on to the next disaster or crisis.”

That’s exactly what I was saying. There must be someone in government who is assigned the task of strategizing what to do for the affected communities for the long term. Distributing relief goods may prove to be the easy part of the job. What happens next requires a lot more thought and yes, a lot more leadership.

Typo

In my Friday column, the population of Istanbul should be 14 million, not billion.

Coincidence?

One strong typhoon I remember is Typhoon Yoling and that happened in Nov. 17-20, 1970. Now, it is Typhoon Yolanda…  Who names these typhoons anyway?

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

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