Saving Project NOAH

The Philippines recently witnessed the near-death and resurgence of its flagship disaster risk reduction and management program. Jo Brianne Briones shares an insider’s perspective.

AsianScientist (Sept. 25, 2017) – My phone was ringing off the hook on the last Sunday of January 2017, and I had about a dozen messages from friends and family, all of them asking, “Is it true? They’re shutting down Project NOAH (Nationwide Operational Assessment of Hazards)?”

Dr. Mahar Lagmay, the project’s executive director, had given an interview at a local radio show earlier that day, saying that Project NOAH—the Nationwide Operational Assessment of Hazards—was no longer going to continue past February 28. Lagmay’s shock announcement was later validated by an official statement from the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) which confirmed that Project NOAH’s work was essentially done, its outputs to be turned over to the different mandated national agencies.

Project NOAH had been touted as the government’s flagship disaster risk reduction and management (DRRM) program to research and address the threats of extreme weather disturbances and the hazards associated with them. Need to know if your house is in a storm surge zone? Will your area be at the risk for flooding in the next three hours? The NOAH website was to be a one-stop-shop for these kinds of hazard and disaster information.

Given that the Philippines is a country with one of the highest exposures to natural hazards, ranking 3rd on the 2016 World Risk Index, Project NOAH was not merely an academic exercise—it helped save lives.

Amidst the shock and confusion on Philippine social media that night, a single question echoed strongly—why was a relevant and arguably effective government program being terminated?

Of barriers and bureaucracies

Despite its noble ambitions, the NOAH project had been dogged by issues and roadblocks from the start of its five-year run. One particular difficulty that hounded NOAH was the bureaucratic processes entrenched in its entire operations—especially with the disbursement of funds.

Aside from difficulties in the procurement of equipment and fieldwork validation activities that required outright financing, there were delays in the wages of the hired researchers, sometimes for up to five months. This resulted in the departure of NOAH’s mostly young scientists and researchers. Months without pay made working difficult, especially for those with families.

Then came the declarations by the Philippine Atmospheric Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration to take over the functions of Project NOAH. This was met with concern by the public because a huge part of the mandate of government science agencies is devoted to monitoring, which leaves them little room to do research on top of the huge time-intensive responsibilities expected of them. The very ideals of Project NOAH were thus being threatened.

Rising from the ashes

In response to the announcement of Project NOAH’s termination, academics, disaster responders, local government units and concerned citizens took to social media and clamored to #SaveProjectNOAH. The Philippines’ secretary of agriculture even declared his intention to absorb the dying group into his department.

Meanwhile, Project NOAH’s own scientists maintained that the nature of their studies on disasters should be a continuous endeavor. Hazard maps, for instance, need to be frequently updated due to changes in topography, and can be fine-tuned with field validations and climate change parameters.

Just when things seemed dire and the Project was on its last legs, the University of the Philippines (UP) declared its support for the beleaguered army of disaster scientists. On 23 February 2017, the UP Board of Regents approved the adoption of Project NOAH by UP.

Project NOAH has thus been reborn as the UP NOAH Center, a core component of the UP Resilience Institute—a proactive hub providing benchmark innovative information vital in lifesaving climate change actions and disaster risk reduction efforts. It will continue with and expand on its research program by incorporating climate change adaptation (CCA) alongside its DRRM initiatives. Such efforts will help local governments shape science-based policies and development plans.

“Because of the shared values and synergies of the UP Resilience Institute and Project NOAH, UP President Professor Danilo L. Concepcion commented that, “In a sense, Project NOAH is coming home.”

Sailing into the future

Dr. Lagmay is forward-looking and optimistic about UP’s adoption of NOAH, saying that it creates an opportunity to foster a multidisciplinary approach to hazards.

“The approach to disaster risk reduction is not only through science and technology but through arts and the humanities as well. With the multidisciplinary faculty of UP, NOAH targets a big change in our consciousness on the manner by which we keep ourselves safe from natural and man-made hazards,” Lagmay said in an interview with Asian Scientist Magazine.

NOAH is in a transition stage towards becoming a full-fledged center in the university. As of now, the roadmap for the organization is still being laid out, and hope remains that this positive turn of events could spell a return for some of the trained young professionals who have sought greener pastures, on-time paychecks, or higher degrees elsewhere.

My phone has been a little more silent since my own departure from NOAH last month. Former colleagues who are still with the organization are busy ensuring the Center functions smoothly during this period of growing pains. At the end of it all, it is perhaps fitting that NOAH has become the thing it envisions the country to be—resilient.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Jo Brianne Briones.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Jo previously worked in the field of disaster research, and has headed the science communication arm of the Philippine science institution Nationwide Operational Assessment of Hazards (Project NOAH). She holds a BSc degree in institution management from the University of the Philippines-Diliman. She writes scripts for tech review videos and occasionally dresses up as strong female characters from pop culture at comic conventions. Her work has appeared in the NOAH Center Website and GMA News Online.

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