In December 2019, Typhoon Kammuri flooded parts of Legazpi City, one of the biggest natural hazard hotspots in the country. Earlier that year, USAID had helped the local water district develop an emergency preparedness plan for maintaining and restoring water services when disasters strike. With the plan in place, the water district was able to respond and restore services within 24 hours, a task that previously could have taken days.
Access to clean and safe water is crucial for the ability of urban communities to thrive and sustain their growth trajectories. However, extreme climate and weather events increasingly threaten the water supply in coastal cities. USAID’s Strengthening Urban Resilience for Growth with Equity (SURGE) project is strengthening urban resilience in the Philippines by integrating disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation into water infrastructure planning and management.
SURGE (2015-2021) works in eight Cities Development Initiative cities in the Philippines, where distribution, pollution, and capacity are ongoing challenges to urban water supply. Local water authorities face challenges to water safety due to a lack of technical expertise, and to distribution from aging pipes and unofficial networks, which contribute to water losses and possible contamination. As climate change leads to increasing environmental threats, drought, flooding, volcanic eruptions, and landslides are further likely to endanger water access. To assist local water authorities, SURGE offers several interventions.
After a 2014 government memorandum mandated all water utilities to conduct safety planning for water quality, SURGE began providing training sessions for water utility operators on the water safety process, including how to identify and manage water quality control measures. Water Safety Planning integrates climate and disaster risk into the process of teaching utility providers how to assess, monitor, and manage their community’s water supply, providing them with the technical expertise to identify new viable water sources, build and repair water storage facilities, and map their infrastructure networks. Solid infrastructure, diverse water sources, and straightforward safety control measures provide more resilience to the impacts of climate change.
To better prepare the utility operators for potential disruptions to their operations, SURGE’s Business Continuity and Recovery Planning helps create and implement effective action plans for responding to natural disasters. The project facilitates these ongoing training sessions, which provide a space for experienced water operators to share recommendations on best ongoing business practices and approaches to disaster response. “The experts are those that experience it, and they are the water utility operators,” says Jake Rom Cadag, Ph.D., a Disaster Risk Reduction-Resilience Specialist for SURGE.
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic brought new challenges for many water utilities in the Philippines. Staffing shortages, supply chain shutdowns, and customers’ financial hardships impeded the utilities’ operations. But, through the coaching sessions, “water utilities learned how to evaluate the effects of an unexpected event on finances, ensure operations plans with minimal staff, and digitize billing and collection systems to preserve financial viability during crises like the pandemic,” says Evelyn Sagun, the Urban Planning Team Lead for SURGE.
Water directly impacts public health, educational opportunities, and economic growth, and climate change increasingly threatens clean water access for many people. Resilient development is a multidimensional technical, geographical, and economical approach that can address risks before they happen and support the continuity of local water operations in vulnerable areas, like the coastal communities of the Philippines.
Tedi S. Rabold is a science journalist specializing in writing and documentary video production about environmental conservation and public health. She currently provides communications support for various USAID environmental projects. She also works as a paralegal and is currently preparing to sit for the U.S. Patent Office Bar Exam. Tedi holds a Master of Science in Science Journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Science in Biology from The George Washington University, with specialized studies in marine biology at James Cook University in Australia.