FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - November 28, 2013 - 12:00am

This has been a disastrous year, visited by many calamities. Economists are now deliberating the consequences of these on the national wellbeing.

The first consideration, of course, is food security. Destructive typhoons hit northern and central Luzon this year, laying waste to the rice crop. It is inevitable that our rice importation will have to be stepped up. That will have implications on our balance of trade.

Super typhoon Yolanda brought extensive damage to our coconut and sugar plantations, cash crops that support the livelihood of millions. Strategic decisions will have to be made now if we should replant the same cash crops or seize this opportunity to reconfigure agriculture in the devastated provinces.

On this question, my vote goes to shifting to higher value crops that will bring better returns to the farming communities — and encourage the return of the refugee population that spilled out the past few weeks. The Department of Agriculture (DA) must play a proactive role here immediately. Or else, we return to the same crops that proved to be poverty traps that kept the affected provinces poor.

Sadly, like the rest of government, the DA is showing little initiative, and even less imagination, in the wake of the calamity. President Aquino ought to pull out his Cabinet members from the relief repacking centers and have them draw up blueprints for sustainable recovery. That is where their value-added is greatest.

From post-conflict Zamboanga to post-quake Bohol to post-typhoon Samar and Leyte, a lot of reconstruction will need to be done. For the short-term, government plans on building bunkhouses to shelter the tens of thousands of homeless families. These bunkhouses are only a notch above shanty quality.

It might do well to consider building longer-term mass housing using prefab concrete components. These components could be manufactured on a mass scale to bring down costs per unit. They could be erected very quickly. Even if they cost a little more, they definitely will be much sturdier.

Building houses using prefab concrete components will rein in the pressure to raid our remaining forests for more wood. That alone should justify the added costs.

Filipino investor Gary Vasquez received international awards for designing modular housing units using prefab components. These housing units could be assembled in a matter of hours. Those overseeing the rehousing of typhoon victims ought to talk to this man.

Some communities, like Guiuan and Tacloban are simply too exposed to the elements to be rebuilt where they originally stood. We have enough geohazard maps to instruct us where to build and where not to. Better planning should go into rebuilding these exposed communities.

We are now told that coastal forests and mangrove trees are able to absorb up to 80% of the force of storm surges. Most coastal communities, however, considered mangroves a pest. They hampered access from land to sea. Now we know they also protect the land from angry seas.

For generations, there was no policy against cutting away the mangroves. We should have one now. There is a reason the mangroves are where they are, apart from serving as breeding grounds for marine life.

When I was in the DBP the institution established a long-term financing structure for reforestation called DBP Forests. The priority was to restore mangrove areas, making them financially feasible for coastal communities to maintain. This program, if it still exists, should be enlarged and hastened — especially for communities facing the Pacific Ocean.

For years, our economists have spoken about the “Pacific deficit.” This refers to the phenomenon where communities on the Pacific side of the archipelago tended to be 30% poorer than communities on the China Sea side. There are many reasons for this, beginning from the cyclical impact of severe weather, to the highly mineralized soil on this side which, while conducive to mining, is unhealthy for agriculture, to the generally inferior logistical network for the Pacific communities.

We need a more comprehensive plan to address the factors creating the “Pacific deficit.” The most immediate things we can do, apart from replanting the mangroves, is to upgrade the logistical system of ports and roads that will have dramatic impact particularly for the isolated island economies.

We all know that the poorer communities are, the more vulnerable they become to severe weather. Creating the infrastructure backbone to improve the local economies on the Pacific side will help them better withstand severe weather.

The San Juanico Bridge, linking Samar and Leyte, is by the way an imperiled structure. The base supports for the bridge were eroded by the fast currents of the channel where it sits. There is urgent need to retrofit this structure before it collapses. The underwater refitting, however, will cost many times more than the original structure. Nowhere in the myriad plans on government shelves is this a priority. We might regret that.

The provinces on the Pacific side, running parallel to the Philippine Trench, hold vast mineral deposits. Policy confusion, corruption and unclear lines of responsibility between national agencies and local governments, have conspired to hold back mining investments in these areas. These investments might have helped generate employment on the Pacific side communities, including any number of boom towns.

With commodity prices now on the low side, it is unlikely we will get a surge of mining investments even if government finally gets its policy act together. Low commodity prices, however, is not an excuse for failing to get our economic act together.

Nothing will revive livelihoods, in Samar island particularly, like high-value, non-traditional and labor intensive industries like mining. More attractive policies will be part of the economic rehabilitation efforts for the devastated provinces.


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