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Coping With Nature's Destructive Forces

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When flash floods hit Wales earlier this month necessitating the evacuation of more than 1,000 people, my thoughts immediately returned to the people I met last month in Cagayan de Oro in the Philippines who had also been affected by flooding. I also reflected on the floods that hit my own constituency, Workington in 2009 and how it shook our community.

In Wales the rescue operation involving fire crews, coastguard lifeboats and Royal Air Force Sea King helicopters ensured that there was no loss of life. In the Philippines people were not so lucky. The tropical storms which hit the southern Philippines last December triggered flash floods which left up to 3,000 people dead.

Looking across the Cagayan River in Mindanano, Philippines the extent of the devastation caused by the flooding is all too apparent. Even five months after the floods the landscape is still strewn with debris. Walking along a pathway I saw up a muddy child's shoe and couldn't help but wonder what had happened to its owner.

As so often happens it was the poorest communities in Cagayan de Oro living in the most vulnerable areas and in unsuitable housing who were most affected by the flood. They lived on the cheaper plots of land close to the river bank in semi-permanent shacks made from wood and metal. When the flood waters swept through they had little chance. As the waters subsided, the survivors found that they were left with nothing.

I was visiting the area with UNICEF UK in order to gain a greater understanding of the importance of their work on Disaster Risk Reduction programmes. Despite technical, social and political advances, natural disasters will always still occur. In fact, due to the effects of climate change they are thought to be increasing in their regularity and impact. In 2010 natural disasters affected more than 200 million people around the world, killing nearly 270,000 people and causing $110 billion in damages. It is estimated that every year in the next decade 175 million children will be affected by sudden climate related disasters

Designing, implementing and funding Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) programmes which minimise vulnerabilities and mitigate the adverse impacts of natural hazards has therefore never been more important.

In the face of increasingly bad weather conditions and longer monsoons, the Filipinos are adapting and showing other middle income countries how they can do the same. Outside Manila I visited a small NGO, Buklod Tao, which has introduced a number initiatives to protect their community against the annual floods. These included an early warning system, a coast guard and evacuation drills. Children are central to some of these initiatives and are taught to lead the drills and also to train their peers. Buklod Tao have also mapped out their entire community, identifying whether houses are concrete or semi permanent, where the young, elderly and disabled lived and where the schools or health centres are located. Central to their objective is knowing where the poorest and most vulnerable lived in order that they can be best protected. As a result of their work this community has seen no flood-related deaths since 2009.

The Philippines is increasingly engaged with climate change issues and Disaster Risk Reduction. There is a Climate Change Commission, of which the President is the Chair. In fact, the Philippines have some of the world's most advance legislation to combat climate change and DRR. What is missing is funds and capacity. Visiting the Manila Observatory, I was told that they knew of technology which would increase the possibility of being able to predict flood, yet they could not afford it.

As world leaders gather in Rio for the Earth Summit this week they must come up with effective ways to lessen the impact of climate change on the world's poorest children and their families. The experience of the Philippines starkly illustrates the destructive power nature can have on lives and livelihoods, devastating communities, agriculture and national economies. It also highlights how DRR strategies can help build resilience in countries and can help them to bounce back after natural disasters. Rio provides an opportunity for world leaders to support lower and middle income countries in finding sustainable solutions to development. I urge Nick Clegg to illustrate leadership and commitment on the issue of sustainable development, including commitment to Disaster Risk Reduction.

Sir Tony Cunningham is Shadow Minster for International Development. His own constituency of Workington suffered some of Britain's worst floods in 2009. He travelled to the Philippines with UNICEF UK