Project Noah Was Once Vital For Disaster Prevention and Rescue. The Government Defunded It
In 2012, the country’s leading scientists set up Project Nationwide Operational Assessment of Hazard—Project NOAH. Supported by then president Benigno Aquino III, it was promoted as the Philippines’ primary disaster risk and reduction management program (DRRM), and the flagship project of the Aquino administration.
On paper, Project NOAH was meant to be the country’s best shot at preparing for disasters. Through a centralized system, it was meant to warn communities six hours ahead of time of impending floods, typhoons, and the like. It combined tech and DRRM, with plans to install water level monitoring stations, develop accurate 3D flood and hazard maps, use tech to identify landslide-prone areas, create wave surge models, build a “flood center” network that would disseminate information, and create a central platform that all civilians could use to prepare for natural hazards.
Project NOAH also launched three apps so civilians could get real-time information on their phones regarding everything from storm updates to flood alerts. It used localized information to generate real-time maps that victims could use to stay safe. The first app was ProjectNOAH, and its successors were Arko, which focused on rainfall updates and flood/hazard maps, and WebSAFE, which focused on the impact of disasters, such as the number of people stranded in a certain building.
During times of crisis, information can mean the difference between life and death. The Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical, and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) continues to do an exemplary job of tracking potential disasters for Filipinos, despite being unmanned. Project NOAH was vital in getting the word out to not just the local government units, but the regular civilians.
In the midst of floods, landslides, and other hazards, rescuers would use Project NOAH’s app to help find the people in need and avoid dangerous areas.
Then, it was defunded in 2017.
Project NOAH’s executive director Mahar Lagmay was the one who broke the news, explaining that they were informed by the government that their request for an extension had been denied and that the government would no longer financially support the program.
The news was announced in 2017, a year into the Duterte administration. Despite presumptions that it was Duterte that pulled the plug on Project NOAH, Lagmay explained in 2017 that they had already been told in 2015, during the Aquino administration, that “walang pondo ang Project NOAH.”
The Department of Science and Technology defended that the technology created by Project NOAH would be passed over to PAGASA, PHIVOLCS, and other agencies, noting that Project NOAH was supposed to end in 2015.
But Lagmay defended that, “There are a lot of programs that NOAH can work on because research will never stop. Every disaster unfolds in a different way. And when they unfold, we learn lessons,” in an interview with PhilStar.
He also went on to note the Project NOAH scientists who were displaced, and that Project NOAH had already established itself as the go-to platform and organization for all disaster-related information.
Prior to being defunded, Project NOAH managed to win countless international and local awards for its innovation and public service. It was recognized and awarded at the UN World Summit Awards, ASEAN ICT Awards, Smart City Asia Pacific Awards, and so much more.
Despite its awards, global recognition, innovation, and public service, Project NOAH was still let go by the government. To save it from closing completely, the University of the Philippines volunteered to keep Project NOAH afloat and adopted it into its system. For its first year under UP, Project NOAH seemed to carry on, but its last post was published in 2018 and the platform has since dropped off the radar.
Without Project NOAH, Filipinos have had to rely on the PAGASA Facebook page or NDRRMC text messages, both of which do the job well but don’t provide everything the Project NOAH apps once offered. LGUs are pretty much told to handle disasters on their own, but where do they get the funds, the manpower, and the information during a pandemic? There are already talks of a Department of Disaster Resilience and Emergency in the works, yet how many typhoons and casualties will pass us by before this bill becomes law?
The fact that the government, regardless of whoever was in power at the time, did not place enough value on Project NOAH to fund it shows that the Philippines’ problem with disaster risk reduction management is not political—it’s systemic and indicative of leadership that expects Filipino “resilience” to be the solution to natural disasters.