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Flooding doesn't have to mean drowning

Australian Volunteers Allister Bevege and Marco Hoffman with local emergency services volunteers. Allister and Marco have trained volunteers in swift water-rescue, coordinated flood drills for river communities and helped to develop a flood early warning system.

In the Philippines, Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) are working on early warning systems and emergency rescue techniques to help river communities deal with a regular - and potentially deadly - natural disaster.

Severe flooding is a regular occurrence that affects the disaster-prone Western Visayas region of Aklan. During cyclones and seasonal monsoons, the Aklan River can rapidly swell to a height of six metres, causing loss and damage to communities and their assets along its banks. The river's notorious currents reach even greater speeds during these times, leading to numerous flood-related fatalities.

"This perennial problem of flooding in the province, we experience year after year," says Head of Aklan's Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office, Galo Ibardolaza. "That's why we're very grateful that Australian Volunteers for International Development has responded to our needs, and definitely sent the right people and the right volunteers for us."

The AVID program is supporting local governments in a number of municipalities in the Philippines, including Aklan, to create and implement mandatory disaster preparedness and risk reduction plans. In 2013 with previous Australian volunteer, Lauren Stockbridge, AVID assisted the Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office to scope the requirements for an effective early warning system for floods to ensure the timely evacuation of communities and minimise casualties. This included an analysis of the location's vulnerable areas and its strengths, together with consultation with flood-prone communities. With further assistance from AVID, Lauren's scoping work is now being implemented by successor volunteers Allister Bevege and Marco Hoffman.

Sensors and flood gauges, designed to report even the slightest variance to the Aklan River's water levels, have been installed; and extensive flood drills conducted to ensure vulnerable communities will be clearly informed and mobilised in case of an emergency. These exercises - encompassing nine Local Government Units with vulnerable river communities - proved very successful, and not only provided event preparation skills for these communities but also valuable data on how to refine operations.

"We did a total of nine flood community-based flood drills," Marco Hoffman recalls. "The most successful one attracted more than 700 participants, and we used church bells, school bells and megaphones to give warnings."

"We are fortunate that two more Australian volunteers have been sent here," Sir Galo adds. "With them, we continue our orientation with the municipalities experiencing flooding, and we now follow up the results of the workshops on vulnerability and capacity assessment as part of the risk knowledge. That's one of the vital elements of a local flood early warning system."

Even though the early warning system is not yet finished, Sir Galo is certain that it saved lives when Typhoon Haiyan caused flooding and storm surges in the region. "In 2008, we had 52 casualties from flooding, but during Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013, we only had 14 casualties. So it shows that our investment in flood early warning really has an effect."

Most recently in December 2014 Typhoon Hagupit threatened the region again, bringing torrential rains and winds. Thankfully, Hagupit was nowhere near the intensity of Haiyan and the river ways of the Aklan province did not flood.

In addition to coordinating flood drills and emergency preparedness for river communities, Allister Bevege trains local emergency services volunteers in swift-water rescue techniques, specifically designed to help people caught in Aklan's river way torrents.

Drawing upon his experience with the State Emergency Service in New South Wales, Allister Bevege says he has developed comprehensive live-saving training for local volunteers, including checking for debris, rope retrieval and basic rescue techniques. In short, nothing you wouldn't see on any episode of Bondi Rescue. Just as important is sharing vital self-preservation techniques with the volunteers themselves. "We also look at self-rescue techniques for the operators should they get thrown or pulled into the river themselves," he says.

Sir Galo is confident that river communities will not be as susceptible to the Aklan's moods in future. Plans are already underway to pass on the acquired knowledge and protocols to other river-centred municipalities, an undertaking he hopes will be enhanced by local governments.

The Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) program is an Australian Government initiative. Australian Red Cross is one of three delivery partners for the AVID program.

Photo:Australian Red Cross/Cheryl Gagalac