The winds of change in Philippines disaster management

Leadership Network members Dana McDiarmid and Garreth Stevens look at disaster risk management in the Philippines and what New Zealand could learn from the archipelago's experiences. The pair took part in the Foundation's Manila Hui late last year, which included a visit to the National Disaster Risk Management Council operations centre.
A man standing behind a fishing net

Inhabiting a country comprised of over 7000 islands, the sea plays a big role in the lives of Filipinos (Photo: Alden Williams)

The Philippines has no shortage of motivation to be proactive when it comes to disaster risk reduction (DRR). According to the United Nations University’s 2016 World Risk Index, the Philippines is the third most vulnerable country to natural disasters, right behind its Pacific Ring of Fire neighbours Vanuatu and Tonga.

With new state of the art equipment for disaster monitoring and management, and updated legislation implemented following Typhoon Haiyan, we were curious to find out how prepared the Philippines is to respond to natural disasters, and what Aotearoa can learn from this dynamic nation.

A visit to the Philippines’ new National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) operations center while participating in the Asia New Zealand Foundation’s 2018 Manila Hui gave us the opportunity to explore these questions first-hand.

South-East Asia’s ‘largest exporter of typhoons’

Many may know the Philippines as a key exporter of electronics, coconut oil, and dried mangos, but did you know that, with an average of 20 typhoons per year, it’s also known as the largest ‘South-East Asian exporter of Typhoons’?

In September last year, Typhoon Mangkhut/Ompong became the strongest storm on record for 2018. Typhoon Mangkhut caused widespread devastation to livelihoods, property and the economy in the Philippines province of Luzon before tracking north-west across the South China Sea to Hong Kong and China’s Guangdong province.

With more than a million people displaced, 82 deaths, and damage exceeding NZD$3 billion, it was the most severe typhoon to make landfall in the Philippines since 2013’s deadly Super Typhoon Haiyan (known locally as Yolanda), which claimed over 6,000 lives and caused more than NZD$15 billion of damage.

How prepared is the Philippines to respond to natural disasters?

With both of us having experience in emergency management in New Zealand, we had assumptions about how disaster risk reduction (DRR) might look and work in the Philippines, but what we soon learned as we spoke with our NDRRMC hosts Susan and Amy is that there are both familiar and completely new elements.

For example, we quickly recognised that the Philippines takes a familiar all-hazards consequence-based approach to DRR, with a comparable national-to-local management structure to New Zealand. However, we were staggered by the scale of that structure. 

Measures to limit damage caused by storm surges include a ban on building in areas susceptible to flooding (Photo: Alden Williams)

Aotearoa operates with one national emergency management agency, 16 regional civil defence emergency management (CDEM) groups, and emergency management teams of varying sizes in 78 local authorities. By contrast, the Philippines has one national DRRM Council, 18 regional-level, 81 provincial-level, 145 city-level, 1,489 municipal-level, and 42,029 community-level groups. Which is understandable, but no less mind-bending, when you learn that the Philippines is made up of over 7,000 islands with 100 million inhabitants, speaking over 80 dialects!

Similarly, while there was an expected shared language of processes, practices and strategies, we underestimated the level of regional and international cooperation apparent in the modern Philippines DRR framework. During our visit, a joint exercise was getting underway with 220 representatives from 27 countries expected to attend, and active partnerships with Indonesia, ASEAN members, Australia (especially for risk analysis), and Japan were clear to see. While New Zealand benefits from similar, strong international partnerships, our size and location can limit interoperability, and our relationships with Pacific partners are primarily focused on DRR and immediate aid and response support.

And while the Philippines and New Zealand may both have a national facility to work out of to manage all-of-Government large-scale responses, the NDRRMC definitely wins the title of most exciting looking! Staffed 24/7 and furnished with the latest technology including walls of screens and accompanying technology, and futuristic (but functional) lighting, it was fascinating to physically see where some of the significant Government investment since Typhoon Haiyan has been made.

Key learnings

Along with these insights into the Philippines’ preparedness for disasters, we also learned that:

  • the Philippines has a policy for preparedness that mandates local government to spend a minimum 5% of internal revenue on pre-positioned and stockpiled resources and supplies for rapid onset events
  • there is an emphasis on the majority of decision-making being made at the lowest level possible, to truly enable community-driven activities before, during, and following disasters
  • the word ‘Proactive’ branded on the NDRRMC sign at the front desk is definitely something that the Philippines is putting into practice, rather than an aspiration.

In two countries where almost everyone will have personal stories of disasters and emergencies, it’s reassuring to know how much is being done in both the Philippines and Aotearoa (check out for tips!) to be prepared for the next big storm.

About the authors

Dana is a member of the National Planning team at the New Zealand Ministry of Civil Defence & Emergency Management. She has been part of the national-level emergency response to a number of events, including the 2016 Kaikoura earthquake, 2017 Port Hills fires and Ex-Tropical Cyclones Debbie and Cook.

 Garreth is a Tokyo based Marketing and Community Development Advisor. While working in local government between 2013 and 2017 he served as the Deputy Chair of the Local Welfare Committee and the Spontaneous Volunteers Coordinator for the Horowhenua District.


The photos in this article were taken by Alden Williams during a visit to the Philippines on the second anniversary of Cyclone Yolanda. He and journalist Jonathan Carson were assisted to travel to the Philippines by an Asia New Zealand Foundation travel media travel grant.