Science and Environment

Philippines learns from past disasters

Rudy A. Fernandez - The Philippine Star

LOS BAÑOS, Laguna, Philippines – There’s no such thing as a natural disaster because all disasters are caused by human error.

This was the assertion of the “National Operational Assessment of Hazards” (NOAH), the government program implemented under the auspices of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST).

“All disasters are man-made; they are never natural. It is the people’s poor understanding on how to address hazards and failure to use appropriate science and technology as well as hazard mitigation plans that create disasters,” stressed a report titled “Lessons from Disasters in the Philippines: The Project NOAH Experience.”

The scientific report of Alfredo Mahar Lagmay was presented at the “Training Workshop on Climate Change Adaptation in Watersheds for Water, Food, and Environmental Security in Southeast Asia,” organized here by the Philippine government-hosted Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA).

 SEARCA, headed by Gil Saguiguit Jr. and based in the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB), subsequently published a synthesis of the report in its “Agriculture ad Development Notes.”

NOAH, with Lagmay as executive director, was launched on July 12, 2012 to undertake disaster science research and development, advance the use of cutting edge technology and recommend innovative information services in the government’s disaster prevention and mitigation efforts.

 It came about following President Aquino’s instruction to DOST headed by Secretary Mario Montejo to find a way to address the disaster problems in the country. Typhoon Sendong had earlier devastated Cagayan de Oro City and Iligan City in Mindanao, killing 1,268 people mostly due to flash floods.

“By using science and technology and partnering with academe and other stakeholders, DOST through Project NOAH takes a multi-disciplinary approach in development systems, tools, and other technologies that could be operationalized by the government to prevent and mitigate disasters,” said Lagmay, professor at the UP National Institute of Geological Sciences.


Since NOAH was launched, at least 10 major lessons from it have been learned.

Among them is that “all disasters are never natural;” they are made by human errors.

Another is that “the climate is changing” and the people must know and be prepared for these changes. For instance, Mindanao did not normally experience extreme weather events such as that brought by Typhoon Pablo.

“Typhoons are usually formed at higher latitudes,” explained Lagmay. “However, Typhoon Pablo is the lowest latitude, Category 5, super typhoon event to make landfall in the world.”

The UP scientist also found out that preparations should be made years or months in advance, and not during the extreme event.

“Even if warnings were made hours in advance but the local government does not know where to evacuate the people, the warnings would be useless. Furthermore, mitigation should be done long before the disaster and information should be given to people in a timely manner,” stressed Lagmay.

“Local communities must be able to identify with the problem” is another lesson emphasized by NOAH.

With LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) mapping, Project NOAH through the DREAM (Disaster Risk and Exposure Assessment for Mitigation) program develops 3D flood simulations and detailed, barangay-level flood hazard maps. With these maps, people can see the trees, houses, bridges, schools, roads and rivers – things familiar to the people who live in the community.

“If the local communities can see the hazards within the area they are familiar with, they can relate to the problem and it raises awareness,” Lagmay said.

Good science-based maps are also important.

“Inaccurate hazard maps are dangerous,” Lagmay warned. For instance, during Typhoon Pablo, Barangay Andap in New Bataan, Compostela Valley was buried in a pile of rocks the size of boulders. The people thought that the village was a safe place to build an evacuation center.

“Experts need to bring science to the people,” he added.

Furthermore, people must know what to do and must put that knowledge into action, and local leaders must give good and timely advice to the people.

Considering the lessons learned from disasters in the country, NOAH has continued to undertake projects to minimize the damage wrought by various hazards.

These include installation of weather sensors such as automated rain and stream gauges and weather stations in strategic places. To date, more than a thousand sensors have been installed.

Seventeen out of 18 major river basins in the country now have LIDAR-mapped floodplains. LIDAR is a state-of-the-art surveying instrument that can map the topography of an area in high resolution with vertical accuracy of more or less 15 centimeters.

Currently, NOAH is mapping the landslide and landslide-susceptible areas all over the country. Based on NOAH data, about 10,000 landslides occurred in the country from 2003 to 2013.

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