Imagine, if we have a facility providing real time rainfall and water level data. The rainfall gauges are installed on mountains within the major headwaters while water level monitoring devices are installed along major waterways.
Imagine, if these devices transmit regular (every minute, every hour) reports to a centralized communication channel (via radio frequency). The central communication HQ would then process this data and generate near-realtime flood forecasts.
Imagine, if these flood alerts were communicated to affected communities (for pre-emptive evacuation), pumping stations and flood gate operators (to regulate the water level).
Imagine how many lives and properties could have been saved if such a Flood Forecasting System exist?
You don’t have to (imagine), a flood forecasting system existed for Metro Manila more than ten years ago.
We live in a flood prone area.
Metro Manila is covered by former tidal flats along Manila Bay including portion of Manila, alluvial plain from Marikina to Laguna and tuff plateau from north to south in the middle part. Marikina River drains 506 km2 basin area down to Pasig River and finally to Manila Bay during normal river discharge. Network of esteros drains the urban watershed except those directly emptying to Pasig River or to Manila Bay. Discharge exceeding 600 m3/s inundates the low lying areas of Manila aggravated by the tidal fluctuation in Manila Bay. (Felizardo, undated)
River basins in Metro Manila (Felizardo, undated)
During flood time, the Laguna Lake becomes the temporary storage of excess flood waters from Marikina River via Mangahan Floodway and Napindan Channel. It also helps drain flash floods from the upper Marikina River. (Felizardo, undated)
Manggahan Floodway and Napindan Channel (Felizardo, undated)
Controlling flood waters and flood warning system in the Metropolis
When the Manggahan Floodway was constructed (June 1984) , a system was installed to provide early warning to local residents that maybe affected by artificial flooding of the caused by the operation of the weir. The DPWH implemented the non-structural project (Nationwide Flood Control and Dredging Project, Part B, an Effective Flood Control Operation System including Telemetering and Flood Warning System in the Pasig-Marikina-Laguna Lake Complex: the EFCOS Project) financed by OECF from a loan package amounting to ¥1.036 billion (JICA, 2001 ).
The project includes:
- establishment of hydrologic gauge stations (2 rain gauge stations, 5 water level gauge stations);
- installation of flood warning equipment (warning posts, patrol cars) and;
- installation of telecommunication facilities (telecommunication network covering gauge stations, warning posts, Rosario, weir operation station, and the total controlling office at the head office of DPWH in Manila.
EFCOS Communication Sytem (JICA, 2001)
Through this system, EFCOS personnel was able collect hydrologic data and transmit warnings to areas near the floodway. The information received by DPWH is automatically transmitted to PAGASA via the existing communication line. The project was completed October 1993.
Additional grant was provided to rehabilitate the EFCOS project (philstar.com). The improvements includes:
- installation of hydrological observation stations for collecting more accurate data on rainfall and water level;
- introduction of the digitized telemetry system as well as on-line data processing system by computers; and
- deployment of radio communication equipment at the pumping stations along the Pasig River as a means of strengthening flood control management.
From the JICA evaluation report, the system was well received by the surrounding communities although “warnings were late in some cases, the warning system was generally given a favorable evaluation. Residents recognized the importance of the warnings in saving their lives and acted properly.” (JICA, 2001)
Communities responding to disaster reduction need up-to-date information
For many disaster prone communities, instituting a community-based disaster management system is the only defense. A bottom-up approach was necessary given the ill-capacity of LGUs to respond to the needs of the community during times of disaster.
Buklod-Tao is one community organization in Barangay Banaba, San Mateo, Rizal that implements community initiated disaster response mechanism. Through the years, numerous projects and activities were initiated towards disaster response, rescue, relief and rehabilitation efforts. A good success indicator is while they where ravaged by several flooding events the past 5 years, human fatality remains minimal.
During my integration with the community (years ago), Buklod-Tao leaders shared that although Barangay Banaba have proven resilience towards the annual flooding events, forecasting flooding is the missing component in their disaster response and mitigation system. If they can predict the time and volume of floodwaters before they arrive in the community, more lives and properties can be saved.
Access to the EFCOS data at that time, seems to be a very viable option to strengthen Buklod-Tao’s community-based flood forecasting system. During 2005-2006, Buklod-Tao initiated partnership with EFCOS personnel which in turn provided training on interpreting EFCOS data and integrating the data to the community-based disaster response and mitigation system.
During a period of extensive rain, Buklod-Tao would call EFCOS Control Station to request near real-time information on rainfall intensity and water levels of Nangka and Marikina River. These data were plotted on a blackboard and and then radioed to the rescue teams. When “critical” rainfall intensity was recorded rescue teams would roam around the community to alert them of a possible evacuation. This system looks “crude” but it has proven its effectiveness during Typhoon Gemma in 2006.
Last year (2008), Buklod-Tao leaders tried to contact EFCOS Control Center but the usual phone number was unanswered. Later, they discovered that EFCOS is not updating it’s data with the usual frequency as before. The rain gauge station located in Nangka River was visited less than usual and they can’t get the regular updates from the EFCOS Control Station anymore.
When flood waters hit Barangay Banaba because of Typhoon Ondoy, residents where surprised to see flood waters as high as a two-storey building smashing through their houses. Fortunately, Buklod-Tao’s advocacy and continuous reminders once again ensued ZERO fatality in the community.
Ondoy sparked finger-pointing
The enormous flood waters because of Ondoy lead to questions why the EFCOS System wasn’t utilized to provide updated flood warnings which could have prevented massive loss of life and properties along communities surrounding Marikina River. Several newspapers have reported this (here and here).
I won’t comment on the news articles anymore to prevent this post from becoming a rant to government inefficiencies.
What should be done?
I believe the EFCOS project is a critical infrastructure towards adapting to living in a flood-prone area like Metro Manila. We need to strengthen our monitoring system and pro-actively involve local communities towards an effective disaster response and mitigation system. Several suggestions:
Rehabilitate and expand the EFCOS System – We need rehabilitate the existing system, we need to add more monitoring stations. I don’t think it would cost us 100M Php for repairs. There are several alternatives. UP scientist are developing a cheaper SMS based rainfall monitoring devices. Schools can be used as rainfall monitoring stations.
Provide near real time access to rainfall and water level measurements – how much would it cost to set-up a webserver? Use [insert whatever programming language] to automate consolidation of data. Publish it as csv, kml, georss, or whatever open format humans and computer can access. Allow scientist and ordinary folks alike to access real time data.
Who knows what application we can create if the public is allowed to consume the data?
Maybe Dr. Lagmay can integrate the data generated from his citizen based flood height map into the rainfall measurements of EFCOS during Typhoon Ondoy and create a better flood simulation and forecasting model.
Integrate flood forecasting to community-based disaster response and mitigation initiatives – Activate local communities. Disaster response is successful if there is support to local initiatives. Local (barangay) and community organizations are our first line of defense. We need to provide these frontliners the necessary information to interpret and adapt to local conditions the rainfall and water level measurements. We need to provide them easy to use (blackboard, pencil and paper) tools to interpret data. Provide a feedback loop so that communities can report back to EFCOS the data they were able to collect locally.
A concerted and integrated effort is necessary. Flooding is not an isolated event constrained by administrative boundaries or local jurisdictions. In this era where uncertainty is becoming the norm rather than the exception, PUBLIC access to information (raw and processed) proves to be one of the critical factor towards saving or losing lives and properties.