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Let NOAH’s Ark Sail On

Why the government’s landmark disaster risk reduction master plan must continue, sans politics.

By Focus FeaturesFebruary 5, 2017

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If there is one person who can finally smile nowadays, it would be geologist and professor, Dr. Mahar Lagmay of the University of the Philippines’ National Institute of Geological Sciences (NIGS).  After all, the cloud of uncertainty that has hovered over his brainchild, the landmark disaster risk reduction management program known as Project NOAH, has been finally lifted.

It was a different climate just days ago. With a heavy heart, he announced the “announcement” of NOAH’s “termination” and eventual absorption by the DOST weather arm PAGASA.

“We were informed that our request for extension was not approved, with DOST citing that there were no more funds for it.  We only had a month or until Feb. 28,” he said.

A ship on its own

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Launched in 2012, the Nationwide Operational Assessment of Hazards (NOAH) is a program of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) that calls for “for a more integrated, accurate, and responsive disaster prevention and mitigation system in high-risk areas” in the country. As executive director of Project NOAH, he was captain of the ship. Relying on his network of scientists, academicians, and even writers and artists, he was at the helm of its direction.

Dr. Lagmay also clarified that Project NOAH is not a term-limited project, as some view it.

“Project NOAH itself is just the flagship name to encompass the disaster risk reduction management projects created under its wing.  What I was asking for is that for DOST to continue using its name, kasi iyan na ang alam ng tao (that is what people already know),” he explained.

He added that the program itself is now mentioned in the teaching of DRRM in all schools. “So why change the name when people know it already?”

Saving lives with real-time assessments

One of the components of the project was the creation of hazard maps, which identified areas most affected by flooding and landslides.  For emergency medicine expert and foremost search-and-rescue man Dr. Ted Esguerra, he considers these hazard maps essential to his operations.

“It is open data. It is open to the public, for all to show how the disaster risk management really works,” he said.  Moreover, he also shared the elements of Project NOAH such as “hazard specific, time-bound, and area-focused” that are vital to his team’s operations.

He shared the same sentiments with Lagmay’s appeal to the government, and was one of the more adamant voices over social media when he learned of the plan to scrap NOAH.

“Like Dr. Lagmay, we are firm in our stance that the program be maintained and institutionalized,” he said, as it is needed now more than ever in preparation for the “biggest problem on the planet – climate change.”

Award-winning ‘ship’ gets adopted

Dr. Lagmay shared that when NOAH’s “termination” was announced, news spread like wild fire and got people on social media appealing for its retention.  Suddenly, other government officials like Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol were calling him up, telling him they would talk to President Rodrigo Duterte for its institutionalization. Members of the private sector are also willing to help augment funds for the continuation of its projects.

Dr. Fortunato Dela Peña, Secretary of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) also assured him personally that the program name will be retained, along with the people who are working on its component programs.

Who wouldn’t when it its four years of operation, Project NOAH has garnered almost 16 awards, nine of which are from prestigious international institutions, including the Top Smart City Initiative in Public Safety in 2016. In addition, its mobile application ARKO has been recognized received the UN World Summit Awards for Mobile Content under the e-Inclusion and Empowerment category in 2014, besting 450 other international mobile applications.

Also in 2015, Dr. Lagmay received the Plinius Medal by the European Geosciences Union for his indispensable effort and work on disaster risk reduction management.

He also shared that when the officials of the US Geological Survey saw the hazard maps made under Project NOAH, they were so surprised.

“They told me that what we have done, the [USGS] was a dream project that they have yet to accomplish. But we already did,” he shared.

At the end of it all, Dr. Lagmay was quick to dispel the notion that it was a government-funded initiative.

“Project NOAH itself has no funding.  What are funded are the eight component projects of the program. In fact, what actually ended were the term dates of many of the projects.  Because like every government-funded project, it has to have an end date,” Dr. Lagmay explained.

He also clarified though that NOAH itself has no ‘start and end date.’ “Ang pag-aaral sa disaster ay never ending, dahil iyan ay pabago-bago (The study of disasters is never-ending, because each disaster is never the same),” he concluded.