In the Philippines, a model for confronting climate change and nearly every disaster you can think of

Legazpi, the capital city of Albay Province, is vulnerable to volcanic eruptions, typhoons, mudslides, earthquakes and tsunamis. Photo Peky/Shutterstock

LEGAZPI, Philippines — The scenery around this port city is dazzling, but nearly all of the most striking features of the Legazpi landscape can kill people by the thousands.

The most obvious peril is the volcano. Mount Mayon rises up from the city’s outskirts into an almost perfectly shaped geometric cone, nearly 2,500 meters (8,000 feet) high. Two hundred years ago this week, an eruption killed 1,200 people, leaving behind ruins that are now a local tourist attraction. Mayon has erupted four times since 1999, and is dangerous even when it isn’t spewing lava. Heavy rains can send mudflows of ash and debris, known as lahar, down its steep hillsides and into villages.

The sparkling blue waters of the Gulf of Albay are a more deceptive threat. In an average year, three to five cyclones sweep in here from the Pacific, inundating low-lying coastal areas with storm surge. (Tacloban, the city flattened by Super Typhoon Haiyan in November, is just 400 km or 250 miles south of here.) Earthquakes are a risk in Legazpi, as are the tsunamis that quakes can trigger. As sea levels rise, Legazpi sits in one of the most vulnerable parts of one of the most vulnerable countries on the planet.

Dealing with disasters has become almost a way of life in Legazpi. That’s why this city of 180,000 and the surrounding province of Albay have become something of a laboratory for urban resilience. If there’s any place on the globe that can test whether city life can withstand the forces of nature and the looming threats of climate change, this may be it.

So far, the signs are positive. Albay Province’s leaders have adopted what they call a “Zero Casualty” policy toward natural disasters. The approach, which was recognized by the Guangzhou International Awards for Urban Innovation, has become the basis of national reforms in the Philippines for preparing for disasters and climate change. It’s also become a global model for coastal countries of modest means. Cambodia, Indonesia, Vietnam and a number of other countries have sent leaders to Albay’s Climate Change Academy to learn about it.

Governor Joey Salceda is the strategy’s champion. Salceda assumed office in 2007, following a horrific year in which two devastating typhoons left more than 1,000 people in Albay dead or missing and the volcano unleashed another damaging eruption. Salceda set out to create a culture of readiness. For example, Albay schools began to teach disaster preparedness and climate change awareness as part of the curriculum. Children as young as 5 years old work to master evacuation drills and know their meeting places to find parents and village leaders after a disaster.  They’re even taught survival skills through games.

Albay Governor Joey Salceda has set out to create a culture of disaster readiness. Photo governor's office

The Zero Casualty strategy has many other aspects. Salceda strengthened systems for identifying and mapping homes and businesses at risk in every kind of disaster scenario.  He beefed up early warning systems, which includes Albay having its own radar for monitoring typhoons and coordinating closely with the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology to predict volcanic eruptions. And he tuned up processes for evacuating hundreds of thousands of people quickly. When Salceda signs an evacuation order, people living in high-risk zones near coastlines, riverbanks or the volcano know the drill.  As an added incentive to follow evacuation orders, each family arriving at an evacuation center is provided with 5 kilos of rice.

“There is no single bullet in doing this all,” says Salceda, who is known in the Philippines as the “Green Economist” and was recently picked to co-chair the Board of Directors of the UN Green Climate Fund. “The only secret is common sense. We see to it that preparedness is being practiced by all our people.”

On higher ground

One place to see what the Zero Casualty policy looks like is in the town of Camalig, inland from Legazpi and safely away from potential flood waters. At the Tagaytay Resettlement Site, some 840 families live in modest but earthquake-proof homes built by the Philippine National Housing Authority and the municipality of Camalig.

Maria Nieva’s family is one of them. Nieva is 72 and has lived through more than her fair share of typhoons and volcanic eruptions. Super Typhoon Durian in 2006 wiped out her home, along with many other wood shanties in poor fishing villages. After the storm, Albay used international aid to build this and seven other resettlement villages on high ground. More than 10,000 people have moved to these safer locations.

“We are more prepared now as we know what to do during disasters and calamities,” says Nieva. “We were taught not to panic but to be prepared on what to do, what to bring, where to go and what to do next. That is our daily ritual here.”

Maria Nieva's family is one of 840 families who have moved from low-lying areas to higher ground at the Tagaytay Resettlement Site. Photo Imelda Abano

Nieva is thankful for the community she lives in now, together with her children and grandchildren. It’s not only safer but also has a chapel, school, health centers, a market, and community centers where people socialize.

“Life is good here. We don’t want to go back to the danger zone,” Nieva says. “Our village leaders always gather us for safety trainings, livelihood and other basic trainings that we need in order to survive.”

Cesar Arandia agrees. Arandia, who is 24, moved to another of the resettlement sites after his house was washed away by mudflow coming from the mountains during the 2006 typhoon.  “I never imagined my family to be among the beneficiaries of the relocation sites,” says Arandia. “We were not just provided with new homes but with a new neighborhood and a new life. I feel safe now.”

Prevention and response

Climate change will almost certainly make disasters worse, threatening to reverse Albay’s progress. For Salceda, the key is to mainstream climate change adaptation and disaster risk management into the everyday workings of local government.

He sees the effort as completely aligned with local initiatives to achieve the UN’s Millennium Development Goals to reduce poverty and improve public health and education. In all, Albay Province spends 9 percent of its budget on activities related to climate adaptation and reducing disaster risks.

Some of that money goes toward preventive projects like mangrove reforestation. The saltwater tolerant shrubs are being planted along certain coastlines in Albay Province. Over time, the mangroves will provide a natural buffer against storm surges, tsunamis and sea-level rise.

Albay has also stepped up its land-use planning. Dangerous areas near the coast and within 6 to 8 km of the volcano are considered no-build zones.  “Climate-proofing has become an urgent matter for our people,” says Legazpi Mayor Noel Rosal. “For us, disaster risk reduction is not an option but a requirement.”

The Cagsawa ruins are a reminder of Mount Mayon's eruption on February 1, 1814, which killed 1,200 people. Photo Chris Nener/ flickr/ CC (no changes) 

While prevention is key to Albay’s strategy, a lot of effort goes into responding more effectively when disaster does strike. Salceda institutionalized the Albay Public Safety and Emergency Management Office, headed up by Cedric Daep, as the nerve center for all disaster preparation, communication and response. Rain gauges throughout the region trigger real-time warnings for floods, landslides and mudflow. Warnings and updates are broadcast over two-way radio and via text messages on mobile phones. An “infoboard” allows central authorities to send text messages out and receive text updates on conditions out in the field.

Salceda also has emphasized building Albay’s local capacity for humanitarian aid in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. That’s important because after any disaster, local responders are on the scene long before national and international aid can arrive. This is carried out through a mission called Team Albay, a corps of highly trained volunteers that swoops in with medicine, food, counseling services and a water filtration machine. Team Albay has already conducted 13 missions throughout the Philippines. When Super Typhoon Haiyan hit Tacloban, Team Albay’s convoy carrying 145 volunteers was the first humanitarian mission to arrive.

“We are vulnerable to disasters but the local government and the communities can do something about it,” Salceda says. “And we have proven that we can do it. It is just a matter of having the political will, the right budgeting, the right people and the right vision.”

MORE FROM THIS SERIES

The Philippines' model for disaster preparedness 

Q&A with Albay Governor Joey Salcada 

Photos from Legazpi city

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Imelda Visaya Abano is the founder and president of the Philippine Network of Environmental Journalists. Full bio

LEARNING FROM LEGAZPI

  • Disaster preparedness and climate change awareness is part of the school curriculum in Albay Province. 
  • More than 10,000 people have been resettled from low-lying areas to earthquake-resistant homes on higher ground.
  • Evacuations are routine in Albay, and families receive 5 kilos of rice for following evacuation orders.

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