P15-B disaster fund still unspent

A resident begins cleaning up their homes in Cabanatuan, northern Philippines.
PHOTO: Philippine Daily Inquirer

SURVIVORS of Typhoon "Lando" (international name: Koppu) run the risk of becoming victims twice as government agencies appear incapable of using P15 billion (S$1 billion) in available disaster relief funds to help them, Sen. Loren Legarda said Monday.

Appalled by the slow use of quick response funds (QRF) and disaster relief funds, Legarda, chair of the Senate committees on finance and climate change, said the agencies concerned must explain their failure to spend money for typhoon victims before their budgets for 2016 could be approved.

Citing data from the Department of Budget and Management, Legarda said a balance of P10.28 billion remained in the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management (NDRRM) Fund, formerly known as the calamity fund, as of September.

This is on top of the remaining P5.458 billion in the QRF for 2015 out of a total allocation of P6.7 billion, meaning as much as 81 per cent of the available fund has not been used, Legarda said.

"We have more than P15 billion worth of government funds that we can use for Lando victims. Yet many survivors of calamities in recent years are still suffering and have yet to rebuild their homes and regain their sources of livelihood," she said.

The QRF is a standby fund used for the government's rehabilitation and relief programs and projects, including prepositioning of relief and equipment, in areas stricken by calamities, epidemics, crises and catastrophes, from the last quarter of the preceding year to the current year.

Agencies with QRF

The fund, however, is not to be used for "predisaster activities." The QRF is a separate fund derived from the NDRRM fund, which is mandated funding under the Philippine Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act of 2010.

Of the QRF in 2015, the Department of Education received P1 billion; Department of Health, P500 million; Department of National Defence (DND)-Office of Civil Defence, P530 million; DND-Office of the Secretary, P352.5 million; Department of Agriculture (DA)-National Irrigation Administration, P500 million; DA-Office of the Secretary, P500 million; Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), P1.325 billion; Department of Transportation and Communications, P1 billion; and Department of Public Works and Highways, P1 billion.

"We have 81 per cent of the QRF unutilized. Does this mean that these agencies have been able to provide for relief and other postdisaster needs of those who were affected by the 11 typhoons that entered the country before Lando?" Legarda said.

Spend it now

She urged all agencies with QRF to "spend it now when survivors of Typhoon Lando most need it."

"We do not approve funds just to go stale in banks," she added.

Typhoon Lando wreaked havoc across northern Luzon last month, leaving 48 people dead, 68 injured, four missing, and destroying P11 billion in agricultural crops and infrastructure.

On Monday, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) said P122 million worth of assistance had been given to Lando victims, much of it on the behest of the DSWD.

In its 2014 annual report, the Commission on Audit (COA) criticised the Office of Civil Defence (OCD) for the very slow use of the QRF, as well as of donations for disaster victims.

State auditors said the unused QRF allocated to the OCD had ballooned to P923 million as of December. The OCD administers the NDRRMC.

The COA also said that out of P466 million in foreign and local donations received by the NDRRMC for various disasters since 2008, only P81 million, or 17 per cent, had been disbursed as of last year.

Detailed accounting

Legarda said she would ask the agencies to give detailed accounting of how much had been spent for Lando victims, and victims of earlier typhoons.

"Do not make them victims twice over-victims of natural calamity and man-made calamity, which is government inaction. The latter is the worst," she said.

"Billions of [pesos in] available funds are not being used judiciously and expeditiously. We need to have compassion and urgent action. The people are asking for help. Let us not be insensitive to their needs. Let us act fast, for the help they need is not today, it was Monday," Legarda said.

She said, however, that she had no plan of impeding the passage of the QRF in the proposed P3-trillion budget for 2016.

Another P530 million has been proposed for the OCD's QRF for 2016, on top of separate allocations for the other agencies composing the NDRRMC.

Budget deliberations

Also Monday, Sen. Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. vowed to bring up the issue of unused calamity funds during the deliberations on 2016 budget in the Senate to ensure these will be used as intended.

Marcos also urged the government to use the idle calamity funds to provide permanent shelter to survivors of Supertyphoon "Yolanda" (international name: Haiyan), which ravaged Eastern Visayas in November 2013, and help victims of other recent calamities.

"It has been two years since [Supertyphoon] Yolanda devastated Tacloban and other nearby areas but many of the survivors are still complaining that they have yet to get permanent shelters that the government promised for them," Marcos said in a statement.

"The sad thing is that the government could have used these funds to help disaster survivors. This smacks of not only insensitivity to the plight of the disaster survivors but also negligence of duty," he said.

Asked to comment on the issue, Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. said he wanted first to hear the explanations of the agencies involved "before blasting away at anybody."

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