NOAH isn't gone but here's what we lost when the project ended
A resident carries an electric fan covered in mud as he checks on his damaged home in a residential area in Marikina City, suburban Manila, on November 13, 2020, a day after Typhoon Vamco hit the capital area bringing heavy rains and flooding.
AFP/Ted Aljibe
NOAH isn't gone but here's what we lost when the project ended
Gaea Katreena Cabico (Philstar.com) - November 13, 2020 - 6:29pm

MANILA, Philippines (Updated 9:16 p.m.) — As Typhoon Ulysses (international name: Vamco) swept across Luzon with violent winds and torrential rain, submerging parts of Metro Manila and adding misery to communities trying to recover from earlier typhoons, risk prevention and mitigation program Project NOAH trended on social media.

Social media users slammed the government for scrapping Project NOAH (Nationwide Operational Assessment of Hazards) in 2017, saying this shows that disaster risk reduction is given less priority by the current administration. Some are even clamoring to bring it back.

But what does the termination of Project NOAH three years ago mean for an archipelagic country exposed to a multitude of disasters such as tropical cyclones?

The country lost the ability to provide “hazard specific, area focused and time bound warnings” during disaster events, University of the Philippines professor Mahar Lagmay, Project NOAH executive director, said.

“That’s our biggest contribution because we were supplying information that government was able to use in near real-time because somebody was minding the store. I’m not saying nobody was minding the store but it takes a lot of work and people to generate that information,” Lagmay said.

Ark vs deluge

Project NOAH, the country’s flagship disaster risk reduction management program, was created in the aftermath of Typhoon Sendong in 2011 (international name: Washi).

During its formal launch in 2012, President Benigno Aquino III said the program’s real-time warnings and information would serve as the country’s ark against deluge.

Project NOAH was composed of disaster mitigation and prevention component projects funded by the Department of Science and Technology. It had been instrumental in identifying areas that would be hit by hazards at a particular time.

“During pre-disaster risk assessment (PDRA) with the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, we provided assessments, municipal level information: which municipalities will be affected by what kind of hazards at what time? That kind of ability was possible because real-time sensors were deployed and those data were responsible for averting many disasters,” Lagmay told Philstar.com.

“Mayors have been telling us it was useful to them,” he added.

Project NOAH provided hydrometeorological hazard maps, which included barangay-level flood hazard maps for major river basins, storm surge maps for coastal communities, landslide hazard maps, and even hazard maps for debris flows.

It also developed impact assessment tool called WebSAFE and mobile application Arko that provided users with location-specific flood hazard maps, as well as storm surge and landslide hazard maps.

Project completed, but work 'not yet done'

In January 2017, the government announced it would pull the plug on Project NOAH due to “lack of funds” for it.

“The role of NOAH then, because we were part of DOST, was official and the information we relay could be heard by everybody,” Lagmay said.

In explaining the decision, DOST Secretary Fortunato dela Peña said the deliverables of Project NOAH had already been met and the government, particularly state weather bureau PAGASA, would adopt the technologies produced by the program.

But for Lagmay their work is not yet done. Only about 60% of the country’s flood maps were completed. Their proposal to create municipal risk assessments for the entire country was not approved.

More than the technology and tools, Project Noah’s termination meant the loss of dozens of disaster scientists and researchers and their expertise.

“There’s institutional memory there. They are trained and experienced people,” Lagmay said.

UP adopts Project NOAH

The UP Board of Regents approved the creation of the NOAH Center for climate actions and disaster risk reduction, five days before the program was set to end in February 2017.

Later in June 2017, UP launched its Resilience Institute (UPRI), which is tasked with providing the public with data for disaster prevention, response and mitigation.

Central to the institute is the NOAH Center, which is directed to assist people and communities in climate change actions and disaster risk reductions by providing timely, reliable and readily accessible information against possible disasters, and support disaster risk reduction and management and climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts.

It is also tasked to generate science-based information, models and applications that can be used for disaster risk reduction and management, climate change adaptation and mitigation, resource management, water conservation and planning, land use, urban development and engineering designs.

“Hindi pa rin naman kami nawawala. We’re still generating research output. We continue our work helping local governments in planning,” said Lagmay, who is also the executive director of UPRI.

“But of course, it’s different if you’re part of a system that is official. What we used to do before is not our focus anymore.”

Lessons from disasters

The Philippines is sitting on the Pacific Ring of Fire, which is characterized by frequent earthquakes and active volcanoes. It is also lashed by around 20 cyclones annually.

Climate change is exacerbating the archipelago’s exposure to disasters, making it a destination of both stronger and more frequent storms.

Ulysses, the third cyclone to hit the country in November and the 21st in the year, struck Central Luzon and other areas reeling from the wrath of Super Typhoon Rolly (international name: Goni) Thursday.

While Rolly bypassed Metro Manila, Ulysses triggered the capital region’s worst flood in years that brought back memories of Typhoon Ondoy (international name Ketsana), forcing residents to wait for rescue on their rooftops.

Lagmay stressed the need to supplement forecasts with warnings derived from real-time, area-focused information, a critical component that should be present in a disaster-plagued nation.

“I see general warnings. For example, when there’s a typhoon, they’ll say it will cross these provinces and there’ll be heavy rain. The people are warned to keep safe from floods and landslides. But it will not flood in all those provinces. They will only flood in specific places where there is downpour. What happens is if they hear that kind of message repeatedly and the floods do not come, then people get desensitized. This leads to the 'cry wolf effect,’” he explained. 

“If you give those warning to complement the forecast, you are able to save lives.”

 

Editor's note: Some quotes have been changed for clarity by request of Dr. Lagmay. 

MAHAR LAGMAY TROPICAL CYCLONE ULYSSES
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