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Fighting Climate Change Disasters in the Philippines

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Since Typhoon Bopha hit the Philippines on December 4, more than 1,000 people have lost their lives, 850 are missing and almost a million are currently homeless.

This was the 16th storm to hit the Philippines within a year, where the population continues to try to cope with the ever changing climatic surges.

Filipino negotiator Naderev Saño's emotional plea during the recent COP18 climate talks in Doha brought the Philippine's increasing climate crisis to the attention of millions of people around the world. I was thankful to him, as this is an issue that is very close to my own heart.
He called for 'no more delays, no more excuses' in the on-going discussions concerning global climate change, as his own country was ravaged by typhoon Bopha. He emphasized that these new weather systems are a clear example that climate change is really happening.

The southern island of Mindanao, first hit by Typhoon Washi this time last year, yet again fell victim to extreme weather when Bopha struck. Vulnerable communities were hit once again by torrential rain and wind, where power supplies were cut and trees were pulled down.

Historically, Mindanao isn't an area often hit by typhoons, and is in fact a popular area for farmers to grow bananas and coconuts for multinational corporations due to its ideal fruit growing climate. Hundreds of farmers rely on this growing industry, but their livelihoods have been left in tatters, consequently leaving them without a means to earn a wage.

Witnessing the destruction left in the wake of Washi, I saw that these communities needed essential support to cope with, and prepare for, a suggested changing typhoon track, which is moving from northern Bicol region and Luzon further south.

I am part of the national programme, Project NOAH (nationwide operational assessment of hazards) under the Department of Science and Technology, which was established earlier this year - its goal is to warn communities of natural hazards, particularly flooding, with enough time to evacuate.

During the past year, we have been helping to provide rainfall forecasts up to four hours in advance, giving communities warning so they're able to evacuate before rivers swell. We have been working with international development agency Christian Aid's partners in Cagayan de Oro and Iligan City, which were badly hit by Washi, to deliver this vital information to those who need it most through Internet and SMS-based early warning system. These communities are given real-time information on rainfall amounts and river water levels, which is collected by automated river and weather stations in Mindanao.

During one of my trips last month, we got to interview people who either had a spouse, parent, or child who died during the floods. It makes us commit to the work we are doing a little bit more knowing that lives are at stake on the ground.

Local NGOs and government representatives received training on how to use the information, and when the power went out during the typhoon Bopha, our partners still had a continuous stream of weather data to guide them through the storm. This was proven effective and, combined with a pre-emptive evacuation of vulnerable communities by local governments, helped to reduce property damage and zero casualties in both cities where we worked.
In the past, I must admit that I didn't really consider the social impacts of our work; we were merely concerned that our models were continuously running and made accurate predictions. But today, it's a massive part of our daily work.

This work on climate science is what is really needed in the Philippines to improve the situation faced by communities most at risk from changing, and often extreme, weather systems. Huge advances in disaster mitigation have been achieved in our country, in terms of the technical aspects of early warning systems, the next step would be to bring these information down to the communities.

The SMS-based system worked well during the last typhoon, and this encourages us to develop more tools that communities can use for disaster preparation and mitigation.

As Mindanao isn't used to visits from strong typhoons, preparedness isn't ingrained in the minds of the vulnerable people who live there. Awareness needs to be raised of the dire situation facing our country. Naderev Saño's words in Doha rang true throughout the Philippines, and I hope our work with Christian Aid partners continues to make a difference and save lives. Honestly, I feel that we can't wait for them to finish their debate in COP - real actions have to be placed right now on the ground.

To see how Christian Aid partners are responding, click here