Philippines shows data is key to equitable climate adaptation in Southeast Asia

Image showing the impact of Typhoon Vamco in the Philippines. Photo: Judgefloro, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

A new program in the Philippines shows how data tools and mapping can help improve disaster responses and climate adaptation. For countries in Southeast Asia that are highly vulnerable to climate impacts, data sharing is one way to build more equitable responses to climate change and disasters.


A new push by the Philippines to use data to improve natural disaster responses may offer lessons for countries across Southeast Asia that face increasing impacts from climate change.

The Philippines sees some of the most intense and frequent natural disasters of any country in the world, from tropical cyclones and floods to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. In 2020, the Philippines was hit by at least six typhoons, destroying over 425,000 houses. Two powerful typhoons—Goni and Vamco—hit the country just over a week apart in October and November.

Since 2018, the Filipino government has been developing geospatial data and mapping tools that can help make disaster responses more effective and equitable. The tools are part of the government’s National Exposure Database, an initiative that enables data sharing and analysis between state agencies, local authorities and NGOs, according to reporting by Mongabay.

Last July, on the thirtieth anniversary of the deadly 1990 Luzon earthquake, the government launched its latest tool, an application called GeoMapperPH. The digital platform, built by the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PHIVOLCS), collects place-specific data on hazards, exposure, vulnerability and coping capacity as part of a geographic information system, or GIS.

“It is not enough to know the hazards. We need to know which communities, and how many people and businesses [will be affected],” said PHIVOLCS Director Renato Solidum Jr.

As countries across Southeast Asia face increasing climate impacts and extreme weather, sharing data is key to pushing for fair allocation of resources and supporting communities at the margins.

For natural disasters and climate impacts, data sharing and GIS can help point out which populations will be hit first and worst, revealing disparities and allowing governments and aid groups to shape a more equitable response. In theory, this also outlines exactly how and where governments need to work to address disparities and inequality, from poverty to unequal access to vital services.

The Philippines has embraced data tools as part of disaster response

Over the past decade, the Philippines was the second-most disaster-prone country in the world after China, according to Robert Kaufman, head of the International Red Cross office in the Philippines. As the government has worked to improve its responses to natural disasters, data sharing has emerged as a promising new strategy.

Solidum and PHIVOLCS built GeoMapper PH to make geospatial data more accessible and to bring together databases from over 50 municipal governments, six government agencies and three NGOs. The data includes demographic and population information as well as physical characteristics like building location, structure and vulnerability, according to Mongabay.

Data on disaster exposure can help governments and humanitarian groups respond effectively and proactively. In one area of Eastern Samar, on the eastern edge of the Philippine archipelago, Oxfam Philippines and local authorities are using forecasting to coordinate preemptive relief to the areas most exposed to extreme weather. 

The municipality of Salcedo has begun rolling out a preemptive cash transfer program that gives families the resources to prepare for typhoons or other disasters—to buy food and protect themselves from the coming storm. The program uses a digital financial services platform to trigger electronic cash transfers to families through fintech services Smart Padala and PayMaya, which don’t require recipients to have a bank account.

Solidum suggested that using data to map vulnerabilities and impacted people and businesses could also be applicable for public health crises like COVID-19. As with natural disasters, data on health impact vulnerability can quickly show who will be hit the worst by the next COVID-19. 

Data-based adaptation requires resources, follow-through

While the Philippine example and its National Exposure Database show promise, not every country has the resources to build out a government-backed data platform. The Philippines has invested heavily in the infrastructure necessary to get reliable geospatial data. Between 1984 to 2020, PHIVOLCS built the number of seismic stations in the country from 12 to 104. 

The Philippines has also built a National Mapping and Resource Information Authority and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources had already rolled out its own GIS.

The government is also able to draw data in part from the country’s four satellites—the most recent launched in February—which provide information on weather events, ocean conditions and changes in climate, among other areas. The Diwata-2 satellite has provided data on forest fires and changes in land mass and Diwata-1 tracked the destructive Typhoon Ompong in 2018.

Image showing the impact of Cyclone Nargis. Photo: DFAT photo library shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

For countries like Myanmar, which is among the region’s most-vulnerable to climate impacts, a data-based approach will require significant investment. Under the country’s new military junta, this isn’t likely to happen. After cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar in 2008, the military government was both unable and unwilling to accurately assess the extent of the damage. The generals largely rejected international support and prevented observers from entering the worst-hit areas.

The creators of the tools for the Philippines also realize that a data platform is only the first step in getting resources to the communities where they’re needed most.

“We have to understand that the solution to a particular problem is not simply technology,” Solidum told Mongabay. “The tool is the technology, but governance would now enter the picture because the data and technology are there, but to convince organizations to engage is a different matter.”

Local climate adaptation and disaster responses can bring benefits across the globe. In 2008, when rice-producing countries in Southeast Asia experienced record droughts, rice prices increased by 200% or more globally, with major consequences for import-dependent countries. According to climate change expert Richard Klein of the Stockholm Environment Institute, disasters like this mean that countries like Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia—food exporters with high vulnerability to climate impacts—are “risk exporters”. 

Sharing data on climate vulnerability and preparedness can not only help address inequalities, but can also show how wealthier countries are affected by climate threats outside their borders.

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