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Sunday, June 14, 2015

Giving Hope to the PAGASA of the Nation: The PAGASA Modernization Act

In one sentence, this bill is about giving hope to PAGASA.

Whether we live in a place that sizzles in May or is submerged in water in July, we rely on the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services to give us the heads up so we can have a head start on what to do.

But PAGASA is not just a foul-weather friend. Its mandate goes beyond issuing hourly bulletins during typhoons.

On ordinary days, it provides information, which, though boring, is basic for society to function and for the economy to run.

Tides help guide ships to ports, pla nes plot their flights on when the sun will rise or set. And both fishermen and feng shui-believing Taipans consult the lunar calendar for good fortune.

PAGASA tells us when and where it would rain, and by how much, so that the man behind the carabao in Mindoro will know when to plow the field and the man behind the wheel in Malabon will know when to plod through flooded streets.

All these data come from PAGASA.

And so do the time, the temperature, and weather icons on our cellphone screen.

But PAGASA is more than just the nation's timekeeper or thermometer.

It is becoming an increasingly needed app for a country which has to cope with an increasingly changing climate.

We don't need historical weather data to tell us that storms are getting frequent, fickle and ferocious.

Each of us has been a victim of at least one in the past nine years. So we don't just read about typhoons, we reel from them.

There was the triple whammy of Milenyo-Reming-Seniang in 2006.

Frank laid waste to Panay in 2008, but, thankfully, there was another Frank who helped it back on its feet.

Ondoy marinated large swaths of Manila the following year. And it was also in 2009 that Pepeng temporarily transformed that flatland from Bulacan to Pangasinan into the Central Lake of Luzon.

And like a sickle, Pablo in 2012 hacked its way in the most unexpected place and time, December, in Mindanao, catching many by surprise as it came outside the typhoon belt and calendar.

A couple of storms since then had barreled across Mindanao, blowing away its idyllic status of being typhoon-free.

And of course, there was Yolanda, the most powerful typhoon in recorded human history.

But even if you take Yolanda out of the tally, the resulting figure would still show that typhoons from 2004 to 2014 claimed the most lives and wrought the greatest damage to property than in any decade in our history.

From 2004 to 2014, this parade of cyclones left 14,150 dead, 46,691 injured and 4,169 missing.

It affected almost 100 million persons, damaged 4.5 million houses, and destroyed P338 billion worth of public and private property.

If you count the missing as dead, the typhoon death toll in the Philippines is higher than the civilian lives lost in Afghanistan during the same period.

But our experiences in 2012, 2013 and 2014 prove that you don't need a typhoon to trigger heavy rains.

Because they're not baptized in the meteorological tradition, we have given this massive annual flooding phenomenon in Mega Manila a generic name - Habagat.

The problem with Habagat is what it lacks in wind, it compensates with water, lots of it.

But having too much water is as harmful as having too little of it.

The other end of the climatic pendulum swing are droughts - and we have come to know that a dam without water is more frightening than one that is about to overflow.

This year alone, mere dry spells in 54 provinces have altered the rice production outlook and led us to scout for sources abroad, in case the dry spell graduates into drought.

That search for a safety net is not without basis nor precedents.

An El Nino episode in 1997 to 1998 parched 600,000 hectares of land and racked up P9 billion in farm losses.

The new normal in an era marked by weather extremes is that our crops are vulnerable to death by drought or by drowning.

But even without the spectre of climate change, our geographical location and topographical makeup expose us to natural disasters.

We are perched atop the Ring of Fire. We serve as the tollgate to a typhoon passageway, being the first landmass which greets typhoons born in the Pacific.

At least 20 typhoons hit us each year, some brushing the fringes of our archipelago, others hitting our cities bull's eye.

Sadly, a marriage of natural mishaps and, yes, man-made missteps, like our infatuation with erecting homes on waterways and our love affair with cutting trees, have made us the second most disaster-prone country in the world.

One study even tagged us as the country which absorbed the most number of disasters since the 1900.

And our being a doormat to typhoons which crams more people per square kilometre than China aggravates the threat of climate change.

Scientists have come up with dire predictions on the fate, if not reversed, that awaits us.

By 2100, annual mean temperature will rise by 4.8 degrees Celsius from the 1990 average, and sea level by 70 centimeters, which means senators who will sit in the 44th Congress of the Philippines, like Chiz Escudero V or Sonny Angara IV, if the Senate will still be here, will ride rubber boats, and on the hottest of days wear rubber boots to work.

On agriculture, the forecasts say, that sans mitigating measures, rice yield will plummet by 75 percent.

This is based on the calculus that every 1 degree Celsius increase in temperature decreases rice harvest by 10 percent. Goodbye, unli rice.

Though this is still far away, we have been given a preview of things to come.

This summer, mercury rose to "38 degrees but feels like hell" levels. And as I've mentioned before, in the past years, more and stronger storms dump more rain for longer periods.

Against this backdrop, a lot of climate change-adaptation and disaster risk-mitigation measures have been proposed and adopted.

The Philippines has passed a raft of laws which comply with global trends and best practices.

Even the budget now contains mandatory earmarks for climate change resiliency.

There is, however, one measure that needs to be passed, and it is this bill, because there can be no climate change adaptation without weather bureau modernization.

Cutting emissions might be a tall order, but by passing this bill, government can no longer be accused that when it comes to modernizing PAGASA it has so far been spewing hot air.

But climate change or not, a modern and efficient weather agency is public service for which there is no substitute.

This is because human activities depend on the weather: planting intentions, holiday plans, construction schedules, travel timetables.

When you march down the aisle, you look up to God for blessings and to the sky to see if rains will mar your wedding.

When you plan a family picnic, you want to be assured that the date chosen is not actually an appointment with a typhoon.

If human activities are weather-dependent, then we need a dependable weather service.

One which can spot a speck of low pressure area thousands of miles away, project if it would develop into a typhoon, and when it does, plot its track with precision, like where it will make landfall.

In short, an agency that will tell a storm, "I've got my eye on you."

One which can forecast local weather, especially in Metro Manila, where the economic cost of vehicular traffic is already P2.4 billion on an uneventful day and possibly twice that amount on bad weather nights.

One which can offer a full package of services that could predict and profile weather and climate events and prescribe measures that will protect life, property and livelihood from these.

One which will tell us of our weaknesses, like villages prone to landslides, storm surges, or those areas which can rapidly turn into a Waterworld.

At present, among PAGASA's mandate is to provide up-to-date, timely and reliable information on atmospheric, astronomical and other weather-related phenomena.

It is tasked to help the government and the people prepare and respond to typhoons, floods, landslides, storm surges, extreme climatic events, El Nino, and climate change.

It is also required to provide inputs on disaster-risk reduction, climate change adaption, and integrated-water resources management.

Another mandate is to ensure that the country's international commitments are met, because if typhoons respect no boundaries, so must meteorological work span borders.

There are seven components of PAGASA's modernization.

First is equipment modernization.

On this, PAGASA sent a shopping list costing a little less than P3.9 billion. Expensive? Not really, if compared to the P172 billion in combined damages to agriculture, property and infrastructure which four typhoons - Ondoy, Pepeng in 2009, Yolanda in 2013 and Glenda last year - caused.

Second is Research and Development (R&D) enhancement.

Third is the establishment of the PAGASA data center.

This is to centralize technical outputs in one data bank.

Fourth is expanding the reach of PAGASA.

PAGASA must go local. Localized weather forecasting is the way forward. The benefits of Doppler radars must be replicated. This requires expanding its network of weather data capturing stations.

Fifth is empowering it to disseminate its information further and faster.

Information not disseminated is information wasted. Much of PAGASA's data is perishable. Storm notices, for example, have a quick shelf life. Because timely information saves lives, PAGASA must go retail in communicating its findings. If flooding is imminent, PAGASA must send of a flood of tweets and texts.

Sixth is boosting its cooperation linkages and joint venture programs, both domestic and international.

For example, local non-government weather outfits, if tapped, are effective force extenders. Tapping this network and harvesting their data will cut both time and expenses. The same openness by which it forges bilateral and multilateral relations abroad must also animate its dealings toward local stakeholders.

Seventh is building up its human resources.

It has been reported that more and more PAGASA personnel leave the Philippine area of responsibility yearly.

This alsa-balutan has inspired the rewording of a popular ballad, which, thankfully, I should only recite and not sing, if we don't want to rain tonight:

Walang tigil ang ulan
At nasaan ka, araw
Wala na bang nananatili sa PAGASA
Nakapagtataka, saan sila napunta?

We must stop this exodus of talent while we train and develop more of them.

This bill instructs the creation of a pay scale for PAGASA employees, which has long been authorized by the Magna Carta for Science and Technology Personnel. This has been pending for 17 years now.

In addition, it calls for a personnel retention incentive, not exceeding 20 percent of the basic salary of qualified personnel.

It also creates a scholarship program for undergraduate and graduate degrees in Meteorology and related fields. More training programs will also be offered.

Ideally, adjusting the public sector pay should be bureaucracy-wide. Revenues have been on the rise since the present government salary rates were authorized in 2009.

When it comes to salaries, I have always believed that a rising tide must raise all ships. But I will settle for a situation where rising floodwaters will, in the meantime, raise just one boat.

In all, the total cost to modernize PAGASA is capital outlay of P3.9 billion, P45 million annually to fund the compensation adjustments and P70 million for training and scholarships.

To finance these, as well as future needs, your Senate bill taps both budgetary and "off-budget" sources.

Included in the latter is a proposed P3 billion from the net income of PAGCOR, to be taken from the 50 percent share of the national government, which, by the way, was P14 billion in 2014.

If we need to get it from gaming revenues, so be it. We need the money so we don't have to roll the dice--or read the cards-- in predicting if it will rain tomorrow.

Another revenue source we are eyeing is income from PAGASA's specialized products and services, as well as cost recovery programs.

There is actually a market for customized weather data. For example, it is common practice for aviation and maritime companies to pay for these.

While some services to private firms will come with a price, there shall be no fee charged on the issuance of regular and special forecasts and warnings that affect safety and such other material for the public good.

Other sources are grants, bequests, donations, ODA, budgetary surpluses, and income from the PAGASA Modernization Trust Fund.

The modernized PAGASA will be led by an Administrator with the rank of Undersecretary. He will be assisted by three deputies.

The Administrator will join the Secretaries of Science and Technology, Budget and Management, and NEDA in implementing the modernization program, the timetable and contents of which will be spelled out in the IRR which shall be issued 90 days after the enactment of this bill.

To ensure that this law will not end up as yet another unfunded mandate, the annual cost of modernization shall be included in the General Appropriations Act

Whatever the amount, I am confident that investments in PAGASA will dwarf the damages caused by typhoons in this climate change era when they're coming in from unexpected places, with unexpected strengths, and at unexpected times.

Mr. President, my dear colleagues:

As we chart PAGASA's future, let me take you back to its past.

PAGASA traces its beginnings to January 1865, when two Jesuits started recording daily weather data in the Observatorio Meteorologico of the Ateneo Municipal in Intramuros.

The observatory soon became a public institution through a Spanish royal decree.

So this year is PAGASA's 150th founding anniversary.

But we must approve this bill not because we want it to be our birthday gift to this agency. We must pass it because this is what our people, our country, and our future need.

As the dark clouds of climate change hover on the horizon, we can however look forward to the future with hope if PAGASA is given one.

Press Release : http://www.senate.gov.ph/press_release/2015/0610_recto1.asp

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