One year after Ketsana, challenges remain

One year after tropical storm Ketsana wreaked havoc on the Philippines, the government says it has put in place more advanced weather monitoring systems that could trigger quicker emergency response to major disasters.



Department of Science and Technology Minister Mario Montejo, who supervises the state weather bureau, says communications systems have been upgraded, more doppler radars installed and about 43 automatic weather stations throughout the country will provide a more accurate forecasting system that will save lives.



"As everybody knows, the end of September is the anniversary of Ondoy [Ketsana] and everyone is anxious about this date," Montejo said. "Because of La Niña, there is a possibility there will be typhoons that are quite strong, and we should be prepared for it. Our first priority is to avoid a tragedy like Ondoy."



Ketsana struck the Philippines on 26 September 2009, dumping more than a month's worth of rain across the capital and nearby provinces in a matter of hours. It caused the Marikina and Pasig rivers in the heart of Manila as well as the Laguna de Bai south of the city, to burst their banks, triggering the country's worst flooding that covered about 80 percent of the capital.



Exactly one week later, the super typhoon Parma made landfall, causing major infrastructure damage in northern Philippines.



In total, more than 1,000 people were killed, 600,000 displaced and up to 10 million affected. The country suffered an estimated US$4.3 billion in economic damage, according to the World Bank.



Challenges



The storms exposed the Philippines' poor weather forecasting infrastructure, with many pointing out that the population could have saved themselves had they been given a two-hour warning.



The flooding put a spotlight on government's poor urban planning, as many of the casualties were from communities along major waterways and riverbanks, including slum areas that have grown in size over the years, unchecked by the local authorities.



Metro Manila is home to some 15 million residents, including many living in shanty towns.



Now, a year later, despite repeated warnings from the government, hundreds of thousands of families are returning to these highly vulnerable areas.



"We have nowhere else to go, this is the only home we've known," says Mario Tating, a father of five, who rebuilt his small dwelling near Marikina river. "Government wants to relocate us, yes, but where to? In the province far away from our relatives, where we will not have jobs, water or electricity."



Dave Bercasio, project coordinator for the International Organization for Migration, said that while the Philippines seems to have learned its lesson and was trying to provide alternative housing, it remained difficult to gauge the government's preparedness.



Nowhere to go



One particular challenge is the availability of evacuation centres to house internally displaced persons (IDPs) in case of a repeat of the 2009 typhoons.



"The problem is largely due to the absence of land and structures, especially in urban areas, to house the large number of IDPs," Bercasio said.



While some have relocated to resettlement sites and others are more willing to move to evacuation centres in the event of an emergency, there are still many IDPs who will be in danger of facing another disaster, Bercasio says.



Another potential problem is that the level of preparedness in areas outside those affected by the typhoons remains low.



World Food Programme country representative Stephen Anderson said that early recovery efforts have been winding down a year after Ketsana, but noted that the tragedy taught the government, as well as humanitarian actors, valuable lessons in coordination and quick reaction.



"I think we see that the government is really doing its utmost right now in terms of focusing on disaster prevention. It's still early days and the Philippines remains very, very highly prone to disasters, not only typhoons, but also earthquakes and volcanoes," Anderson told IRIN.



"We hope and pray that another Ketsana will not strike the Philippines, but if it does, we believe the casualties will be minimized and the response will be that much quicker and effective."



According to the state weather bureau, the Philippines is struck by 20 typhoons each year on average.



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