Special Feature for World Population Day 2015

It only took 45 seconds to leave a path of destruction. At around 4:26 PM of July 16, 1990, Northern Luzon was shook by a 7.7 magnitude earthquake. Famous landmarks, five star hotels and residences in Baguio City crumbled to rubble in the few seconds that the earth shook violently. It was so devastating that many Baguio residents opted to sleep in open public spaces than risk getting buried in their own homes due to the many aftershocks thereafter.

The Cordillera Administrative Region stands as one of the most disaster prones regions in the Philippines. The area is always at the threat of landslides, typhoons and earthquakes. Baguio City still remembers the 1990 earthquake that brought down the city and left many dead and a multitude of properties in ruins. That eathquake according to the City Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (CDRRMC) killed  1,666 people and closed off land access to Baguio City for weeks.

 

Exactly 25 years later, the threat still remains but with a bigger consequence. In the last two decades Baguio City has exponentially grown not only economically but also demographically. Hosting major businesses, industries, education and tourist destinations, the city is now home to an estimated 320,000 people with thousands more coming and going every day. This current population, almost double the number of people in 1990, is a huge target for a major disaster to strike.

Landslides and super typhoons have also added to the death tolls as several disasters have each taken tens to hundreds of lives just in the last few years. Whether they are manmade, natural or a combination of both a large number of people are always at risk when the next calamity comes this way. The threat exists not only in Baguio City but also every municipality in the region.

Coupled with these threats is the immediate need to address those who are most at risk. International and national organizations call them vulnerable populations. The World Health Organization (WHO) identifies ”Children, pregnant women, elderly people, malnourished people, and people who are ill or immuno-compromised, are particularly vulnerable when a disaster strikes”. These groups are in most need in times of disaster because of additional threats to their well-being when calamities happen.

The United Nations Populations Funds (UNFPA) recognizes this and calls upon the world to promote the safety of vulnerable populations in disasters. The UNFPA shall focus the celebration of World Population Day on July 11, 2015 on preventing risks and addressing the needs of these groups in these times when natural and manmade disasters are more devastating than ever.

Indigenous Peoples

Here in the Cordilleras, indigenous peoples are also part of these vulnerable populations. Nearly 70 percent or 1.5 million people living in the Cordilleras are members of ethno-linguistic groups. Many Cordillerans live in geographically isolated and disadvantaged areas (GIDA). Under normal circumstances they already have limited access to health and basic services. Disasters make living conditions even worse limiting their resources even further in the middle of calamities.

With mostly agriculture as their main economy, indigenous peoples also become victims to loss of livelihood when calamities happen. Many rely on proper weather conditions and proper harvests to yield just “break-even” income. Typhoons bring production into a halt and small time farmers in the region become helpless to bring food into their homes.

Women, the Elderly and Children

Add these specifics to the already large numbers of reproductive aged women and children under 5 who are currently living in the region. Based on the report of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), 22 per cent or 333,882 women in the Cordilleras are between the ages of 15-49 while 188,736 or 12 percent of the population are children under five years or age. These populations are considered most vulnerable in times of disaster as most are in dire need to have maternal and child care. Although major investments and programs have been done to improve maternal and child care in the region, disasters change conditions drastically.  Evacuation centers will not be able to immediately provide these kinds of services as priority supply deliveries shall be focused on food, water and basic medicine.

Pregnant women also become top priorities as risk become more prominent with disasters. Health risks are very evident during of pregnancy and reducing their access to proper health care brings them even closer to danger.

Disease and contamination is a focus when it comes to children under 5 years of age and senior citizens. Evacuation centers are usually densely populated with very limited resources for proper sanitation. The common cold can spread quickly within cramped classrooms and could turn into pneumonia in a few days together with the worsening conditions. The longer families have to stay in these centers, the more they are in danger of acquiring additional health risks.

Urban Density

Baguio city is one of the most densely populated cities in the country. According to the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) there are 5,542 people living per every square kilometer of the city. This does not include transient residents who either have irregular business in the city or students who come from nearby areas around Baguio city. Every year the population fluctuates around 300,000 to 500,000 people in a day especially in peak seasons of tourism.  As reported by the Department of Tourism Regional Office-CAR, about a million tourists came to Baguio city around the Christmas break of December 25-31, 2014. These high population changes adds up to the potential number of people at risk once an unexpected earthquake strikes the city like in 1990. Economic changes have brought about changes in the infrastructure landscape as buildings become taller and become susceptible to collapse.

Having more people in less amounts of space becomes a big burden when calamities strike. Densely populated areas not only increases the amount of risks in those kinds of situations but also adds to the needs even before disasters happen. Highly populated areas like Baguio city demand more resources for disaster risk mitigation and deficiency might lead to catastrophic consequences.

Prevention always better than Cure

The world has seen the explosive changes that have happened in the way we experience disasters. The Fukushima disaster in 2011, Typhoon Yolanda in 2013 and just recently the Nepal Earthquake have shown us the magnitude of disasters in this age. We have never seen a series of calamities in the form of typhoons, earthquakes and tsunamis hit us every single year. The Earth is changing and so should all of us.

Everyone should be vigilant about the threats that surround us. It is not only up to government agencies or civil society organizations to come up with solutions to the problems we face now. It starts with every home, every member of the family.  Disaster preparedness should be priority. Everyone is vulnerable.