Urban Planning Issues in the Philippines

COVID-19 in the Philippines: What if we respond to climate change like how we responded to COVID-19?

How would a COVID-19-like response to climate change look like in the Philippines?

Climate change and COVID-19 are linked

Numerous articles have asked the question: “How would a COVID-19 -like response to climate change look like?

What more when climate changes worsen? The Economist

Most of these articles characterize the COVID-19 response as urgent and collective. Most also highlight that the COVID-19 global response taught us that “all our responses need to be science-based”   .

The pandemic also revealed more about the global ties that bind our world today – a key ingredient in sustainable climate action.

“We’ve seen that governments can act, and people can change their behavior, in a very short amount of time,”

May Boeve

The global response to COVID-19 shows the capacity of global leaders to exercise political will when facing an immediate threat.

Political will is the missing ingredient from the global climate action.

The recent COP25 meeting was deemed a failure because leaders failed to agree on global carbon market rules of the Paris Agreement.

Also, only 28 countries have at least one local government that has passed declarations of a climate emergency.

COVID-19 also forced human behavior to change “in a very short amount of time.”

Lockdowns and physical distancing regulations led to work from home arrangements and patronization of micromobility, among other behavioral changes.

Art Markman has discussed how people treat climate change as something far from realization.

“Unfortunately, climate change involves a combination of factors that make it hard for people to get motivated.”

Art Markman

We in the Philippines seemed to have also applied this psychological view that the COVID-19 pandemic was an outlying threat in January 2020.

Our government leaders saw a COVID-19 epidemic in the Philippines as a distant future, even though our BFF was experiencing it already.

The Philippines responded poorly to the COVID-19 pandemic

The first case of the coronavirus-related death in the Philippines was recorded on February 1, 2020.

The first case of local transmission was confirmed on March 6, 2020.

As late as March 11, 2020, the President appeared nonchalant.

On March 17, the  Luzon-wide quarantine was started; then, there were 142 total confirmed cases and 12 total deaths.

Prof Richard Heydarian argued  the “lockdown” was far too late and the Philippines ignored lessons from Singapore, Taiwan and Vietnam.

Local governments are at the forefront of a bureaucratic disaster because of incomplete devolution.

The order of the President to delegate the delivery basic services to barangay leaders exhibited the importance of strong and autonomous local governments

The pandemic emphasized the shortcomings of the ongoing devolution that have long hindered local development in municipalities, cities, and provinces.

Read: If Environmental Scientists had More Influence

The Constitution provides local autonomy and accountability for territorial and political subdivisions (Article X, 1987 Constitution). This provision was enacted into the Local Government Code of 1991.

The bureaucratic foothold in local disaster risk reduction and management exhibited the perils of unclear co-management jurisdiction between the national government and the local governments.

In the words of Professor Emeritus Edilberto C. de Jesus, “Imperial Manila prevails.”

“…when push came to shove, top-down, command-and-control habits of Imperial Manila prevailed…

Professor Emeritus Edilberto C. de Jesus

This goes beyond the issues regarding banning tricycles and approving testing centers.

Barangay leaders were confused of their mandate to maintain public order and safety in a health emergency.

The community quarantine was Luzon-wide but the guidelines were Metro Manila-centric.

Delays in food delivery from provinces affected both the National Capital Region and the resource centers in outside regions.

Of course, some local government units rose to the challenge.

Baguio City was declared a model city. Marikina City was able to build their own COVID-19 testing facility.

The most vulnerable sectors of the society are most immediately and intensely affected

Resulting from the unconstitutional exercise of “general supervision”, the most vulnerable sectors of society have been most immediately and intensely affected.

A general ban on public transportation without providing sustainable alternatives led to “violations to physical distancing.”

Urban inequality in Metro Manila became more obvious, as the poor and marginalized lost their access to jobs and livelihood first.

According to the International Labor Organization, up to 40 percent of the country’s 45 million labor force are less likely to have formal work arrangements, with little access to social protection and insurance.

Food packs and financial assistance were slow to arrive and were not available for everyone.

Construction workers had to walk for hours to work their “no work, no pay” jobs that cannot be done from home.

Non-car-using healthcare workers did not have the means to travel, as jeepneys, buses, even taxis were not operating.

“Disobedience and crime” occurred because of hunger and the need for essentials. Relief of food and cash took days of waiting.

Quarantine violators gathered in a basketball court.
Quarantine violators gathered in a basketball court. Oscar Tagumpay

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How a Philippine COVID-19-like response to climate change may look like

Asia is no stranger to disasters.

The Philippines, being a top-ranked country in terms of disaster risk, has shown its capacity to rise up from shocks.

The present 40-plus-day quarantine is a giant compared to the Ondoy’s, Yolanda’s and Marawi’s.

Filipinos are (sadly) familiar with frequent typhoons and political unrest. But, we are relatively  strangers to viral diseases.

Climate change projections released by the IPCC, detail the degree of certainty (and uncertainty) of climate change phenomena.

The Philippines, which frequently ranks as a top country in terms of vulnerability to climate change, should not be “caught off-guard.”

We are much informed about the possible impacts of climate change to the country, thanks to documentaries and first-hand experiences.

Scarce and closed planning data and information may hinder quick response

One of the opportunities present today is quick access to information.

Yes, the COVID-19 DOH tracker is a great platform for updates.

But, barangay governments are slow to be informed of barangay-level statistics.

Quick response must be data-driven!

Though advances in data sharing in the executive branch have occurred, updated and accessible planning data and information are still lacking.

Dashboards created by Filipino mappers promote the spatial presentation of numerical statistics.

Read: Make Decisions Like Google By Using these 6 Secrets

Political motivations will shift the blame away from global superpowers

Climate change is the great “unequalizer.”

Global superpowers account for most of carbon emissions while less developed territories bear the risks of climate-related impacts.

China is treated as a model country, despite being the source.

Granted, the authoritarian leadership was able to implement a lockdown that “flattened the curve.”

However, the Philippines could have looked for a better example of COVID-19 response from its nearer neighbor South Korea.

We will be caught off-guard.

Better safe than sorry.

Already knowing the possible impacts of climate change, the Philippine government must quickly respond to near-term and long-term projections.

Projected changes in rainfall and sea levels. are the priority focus areas for the national government!

The effectiveness of climate action rests on effective co-management of local territories.

The national government should encourage local governments to build their capacity  by sharing not only responsibility but also resources.

Read: Frequently Asked Questions about Comprehensive Land Use Plans (CLUP) in the Philippines

It is insufficient to rely on the Climate Change Commission and the DILG in building the capacity of LGUs in integrating climate change into governance.

The Provincial Government has a critical, yet untapped, role in ensuring that cities, municipalities, and barangays have the lowest risk possible.

The vulnerable will be left behind.

I enumerate three groups that may be most affected by discoordinated and delayed climate action.

  • Poor and marginalized
  • Farmers and fishers
  • Indigenous peoples

When sea levels rise, coastal areas will be submerged. These are where the poor and marginalized communities typically live. Many LGUs are already below sea levels.

The livelihood of farmers and fishers are sensitive to changes in the climate.

Typhoon Haiyan, for example, destroyed over 67,000 hectares of rice crops (Di Nunzio, 2013). Warming temperatures of water bodies in the Philippines may also reduce fish availability.

The percentage of fish catch from open waters have decreased. Mongabay.

Indigenous peoples reside in resource-rich areas that are prime targets of multinational corporations.

As stewards and primary defenders of the environment, indigenous peoples struggle with unrecognized rights (especially towards ancestral land ownership), disrespect on their traditional practices, and   paramilitary pressure.

Even alternative energy infrastructure like hydropower dams are instruments of abuse of indigenous communities!

Vulnerability assessments are mandatory for local government units – the use of information from these assessments must also be mandatory.

More than being the basis for disaster risk maps, vulnerability assessments provide decision-makers with indispensable information towards implementing  proactive disaster response..

Read: 3 Requests for Elected Officials in the Philippines

We can only respond well if we act collectively and timely

“there’s a patchwork of efforts by local governments, churches, civic groups, and ordinary citizens trying to do what they can”

The Interpreter

The private sector incrementally filled the gaps in the government’s COVID-19 response.

Philippine universities and colleges ramped up research and development, producing cheaper test kits and supplementing scarce protective equipment.

Influencers initiated online donation drives to alleviate food and cash shortage.

We can expect the same for climate action.

Private individuals and institutions have driven climate action in the Philippines.. With the limited will of the government, this trend is unlikely to change.

Filipino climate heroes will step-up!

To prevent a disarray in the ongoing climate action, we must learn from the gaps in our sorry COVID-19 reaction.

How to become a Filipino Environmental Planner?

How should the Philippines respond to climate change?

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