Meeting the Government’s “zero casualty” goal during disasters in the Philippines is an unenviable task. But General Benito Ramos, the country’s top civil defence official, is determined to achieve the lofty target.
The Philippines is one of the world’s most disaster-prone countries. The archipelago comprises more than 7,000 islands along the Pacific “Ring of Fire”, meaning that earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are frequent. An average of 20 typhoons and tropical storms cause massive flooding every year.
Despite these challenges, General Ramos says the country is now much better at keeping its 94 million inhabitants safe. But he also admits that more needs to be done. “No one can contain a calamity, be it natural or man induced,” he warns.
Ramos’s National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) is well organized at local, regional and national levels, but international humanitarian assistance remains welcome. “In this regard, the UN’s help, specifically OCHA’s, is very important,” he says.
Ramos cites the recent back-to-back typhoons, Nesat and Nalgae, as an example of when natural disasters stretched national emergency response capacity. Typhoon Nesat hit the Philippines’ most populous island of Luzon on 27 September 2011. Typhoon Nalgae cut a similar destructive path only five days later. More than 4 million people were affected and 254,400 people needed assistance.
OCHA helped the Government understand how the international humanitarian system could provide support. Although the Government had not formally requested international assistance, individual line ministries received vital help. WFP donated boats for search and rescue, UNICEF provided hygiene kits through the Social Welfare Department and UNFPA supported the local Red Cross with medical missions. With rice-growing plains across Luzon flooded, FAO helped the Agriculture Department provide assistance to poor farmers.
Ramos and OCHA co-chair the recently established Technical Working Group (TWG) on Humanitarian Assistance. “I view this OCHA-led mechanism as the main focal point for all international humanitarian efforts in the Philippines,” Ramos said. “The aim of the TWG is to simplify matters so that coordination becomes easier.”
The group comprises key local and international humanitarian partners. It aims to ensure regular interaction and improve inter-cluster coordination between agreed humanitarian sectors (such as logistics, nutrition, water and sanitation) for preparedness activities and emergency response. As a result of its success, the TWG was replicated at the sub-national level to strengthen local coordination.
According to Jacqui Badcock, the Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in the Philippines, the TWG “is a mechanism that is already proving that we can more readily facilitate our lines of communication. The Government gets to know what the humanitarian community can provide, and equally we are getting to understand what the Government’s capacities are, what their needs may be and when they may be prompted to request international assistance.”
For Ramos, it’s about getting closer to his “zero casualty” goal. “Had it not been for the early warnings of the NDRRMC and the help of the TWG, many more lives could have been lost,” he says of the recent twin typhoons. “That is why we belong to a community of nations, and we can reach out to our friends through OCHA.”