Some weeks back, I attended the launch of the integrated University of the Philippines Resilience Institute (UP RI) and Nationwide Operational Assessment of Hazards (NOAH) Center. Present at this milestone event were UP President Danilo Concepcion; Sen. Loren Legarda (UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction Global Champion for Resilience); Albay Second District Representative Joey Sarte Salceda (UN Senior Global Champion on Climate Change Adaptation and Disaster Risk Reduction); and Mayor Bubut Brondial (Champion on local autonomy and governance, League of Municipalities of the Philippines National President, and Mayor of Oriental Mindoro’s Municipality of Socorro).
Finally, a longtime dream and hope by so many of us who support disaster risk reduction and management (DRRM) is real! What used to be known as Project NOAH is now a center! As such, it will now serve as a proactive hub providing benchmark innovative information critical to lifesaving climate change actions and disaster risk reduction efforts.
Project NOAH began in 2012 under the DOST with funding good until 2015. Eventually, the project was extended until February 2017. During its lifetime, Project NOAH came up with several projects (see below), in cooperation with different implementing agencies/institutes:
Here is a video about Project NOAH shown during the launch of the NOAH Center.
For ordinary citizens like me, it was Project NOAH’s app that was really helpful. I consulted it mostly on days when Pagasa would announce an approaching typhoon. I would check the Doppler radars for signs of impending heavy rains as well as the rain gauges near my area.
The future of Project NOAH was unsure for a while as budgeted funds were about to run out and DOST decided to discontinue it, saying that its tools, technologies, and even some of NOAH’s remaining scientists (around 15 scientists, as mentioned by DOST Secretary Fortunato Dela Pena), could be absorbed and continued by the state weather bureau Pagasa.
At that time, it was not clear to me how Pagasa would continue the work of Project NOAH. Both were important for DRRM efforts, for sure; they just had different approaches. Some of the questions in my mind had to do with these:
- DOST viewed Project NOAH as simply that. A research project with a start date and finite end date. I saw Project NOAH as a continuing provider of potentially lifesaving tools for people in disaster-affected areas.
- Pagasa gave the public regular weather bulletins through press conferences and media interviews. NOAH placed timely, critical information in the hands of the public through apps and downloadable hazard maps. Both types of information were very critical during disasters. However, while Pagasa’s information was macro in coverage, usually covering general weather information for regions, provinces, and cities, NOAH’s had the potential to zoom into a more micro mode, like communities or even streets, using both science and technology, for more focused warnings. I strongly felt that citizens were empowered when they had “as close to real-time” information that would spur them to take actions that could save their lives. Dr. Lagmay always insisted, in several chats Blogwatch had with him, that the best way to save as many Filipinos as possible during disasters was to empower them with DRRM-related information that was truly open and as timely as possible.
- NOAH was staffed mostly by scientists (geologists, environmental engineers, civil engineers, biologists, geographer/GIS specialist, meteorologist/physicists, among others). They also had people schooled in mass communications and the visual arts who, I suppose, were responsible for making sure that infographics and visuals were clear, accurate, and easily understood even at the grassroots level. I was not sure how Pagasa could “take over” from where NOAH left off considering different skill sets required. Plus, such apps and technologies needed to evolve over time with changing information needs and technology. It was sad to learn that at the end of its project life, a good number of NOAH scientists had already left the project to seek work elsewhere. To retain only 15 scientists from Project NOAH would have drastically affected the future of NOAH or worse, lead to its non-use.
I welcomed the news that the University of the Philippines decided to integrate Project NOAH into its Resilience Institute. It was a step in the right direction. NOAH had to be elevated to a status that would enable it to pursue its DRRM mission.
What is in store for us?
Now that it is a full-fledged NOAH Center, what is in store for us? I believe we can look forward to more improved versions of the NOAH app. The mobile phone is always with us and within reach. It is but logical that disaster warning systems and critical timely information related to disasters are designed with mobile in mind (including SMS-based systems) to reach the widest number of people.
Let’s look at what the UP RI and NOAH Center plan down the road.
- Dr. Lagmay said that they will employ progressive scientific research, use state-of-the-art equipment and technology, and collaborate with other scholastic disciplines through the UP RI. This will ensure reliable, understandable, and timely data that is open and free to the public at all times.
- This research and collaboration, “…will produce effective and efficient capacity building programs which are essential in forming sustainable development plans that will definitely benefit all Filipinos, especially the poor and other marginalized sectors” according to Dr. Lagmay.
- The NOAH Center will intensify its functions to make available comprehensible reports needed by the country’s 144 cities and 1,490 municipalities to respond to various calamities and facilitate proper vulnerability management in their respective areas of jurisdiction.
- UP RI will map out blueprints for local government units on implementing genuine progress as they address and overcome the challenges of future catastrophes.
How can DRRM efforts be effectively sustained and supported by government?
The Philippines will always be vulnerable to natural calamities. How can the government continue to support the efforts of UP RI, the NOAH Center, and even Pagasa and other similar DRRM agencies?
One, government must recognize that because DRRM saves lives, DRRM-related funding must be institutionalized as a permanent, priority budget item. It is sad when DRRM funding is continually a challenge. Do we even have to justify
Two, government must take care of DRRM scientists as they are not easily replaceable. The scientists of NOAH bear specific and special skills that take years to learn, master and apply. During the period when NOAH’s future was uncertain, a good number of NOAh’s scientists moved on to other endeavors as many had families to provide for. I hope that, moving forward, scientists involved in DRRM are not simply viewed as plantilla positions, that can be readily filled or replaced, but as valuable assets with the kind of experience and know-how we need to make DRRM a key factor in saving more lives. Rather than lose them to other countries, we must do all we can to keep local, scientific skills in the country.
Three, open data should always be the way to go. Government agencies (not just in the Philippines but in other countries as well) look at information they hold as their source of power. No wonder that a lot of these are kept close to their chests and disclosed to the public only when they see fit to do so. It cannot be that way with DRRM. It is time to empower citizens. Government cannot be everywhere all the time to help us. Show us, through easy-to-interpret infographics and maps what communities are in danger from what type of disasters. Give us timely weather and disaster information we can readily access from our devices. Help us to help ourselves. In other words, teach us how to fish instead of feeding us fish.
Lastly, let’s keep politics away from all DRRM-related agencies. There is no room for politics when it comes to doing what is needed to save more lives during disasters. Each DRRM agency has its own strength and skill set. We need to find a way to work together for the greater good instead of indulge in nonproductive politicking.
Am I hopeful about the future of citizens becoming empowered for DRRM? Going by the current direction and mindset of the people behind the UP RI/NOAH Center…the answer is a resounding YES! But there is a lot of work and collaboration among DRRM agencies that will be needed to create synergistic results.