Small City, Big Dreams
BY HELEN HERNANE-PALAPAG
MAYOR NACIONAL “NIKKO” MERCADO IS NOT AFRAID TO REACH FOR THE STARS AS HE STRIVES TO ACHIEVE GLOBAL GOALS IN THE CITY OF MAASIN.
More than half of the world’s population currently lives in cities. With the increasing trend, the figure is expected to reach up to 70 percent by 2050. In other words, seven out of 10 people will be living in cities in the near future.
This high population density will further strain cities that are already facing significant problems such as traffic, pollution, environmental degradation, and widening inequality in terms of accessing opportunities (education and jobs) and adequate living environments. Cities all over the world are bearing the brunt of the repercussions of centuries of collective global missteps; especially vulnerable are those in developing countries such as the Philippines wherein an average of 16 percent of city populations are living in poverty.
𝐂𝐋𝐈𝐌𝐀𝐓𝐄 𝐂𝐇𝐀𝐍𝐆𝐄 𝐂𝐎𝐍𝐒𝐄𝐐𝐔𝐄𝐍𝐂𝐄𝐒
On December 14, 2021, Typhoon Odette entered the Philippine Area of Responsibility (PAR). In preparation for the incoming storm, the local government of the City of Maasin led by Mayor Nacional “Nikko” Mercado ordered the preemptive evacuation of citizens; pre-positioned search and rescue (SAR) and emergency response vehicles and equipment; canceled sea trips; activated Philippine Red Cross (PRC) volunteers on top of emergency response teams, and much more. The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and Philippine National Police (PNP) were also on standby for possible deployment.
Unfortunately, the super typhoon—which, at its peak, was classified as a Category 4 tropical cyclone—was stronger than any preparative measure. Typhoon Odette wreaked havoc in the areas it passed over, including the City of Maasin. By the end, it had completely destroyed almost 7,000 houses and partially damaged 14,000. The local government counted 139 injuries and one fatality; fortunately, there were no missing persons. Power and communication lines in the city were cut off. There was widespread shortage of food and clean, potable water.
Afterwards, the office of Civil Defence (OCD) Region 8 conducted a Post Disaster Assestment and ?Needs Analysis (PDANA). In conclusion, the typhoon caused total damage worth over 2 trillion pesos and losses of roughtly Php800 million in the region including Maasin City.
"Can you imagine all the years, all the hardships that you endured to improve your city, then all of a sudden, it was wiped out? You have to go back to your drawing board and reassess because a lot of the people had everything taken away. Many lost their houses, their jobs, or their businesses. We’re almost starting from scratch again,” Mercado shares.
But there’s no rest for the weary. While they took a beat to gather their bearings after the severe storm ravaged their town, even peeling off the roof of their city hall where they were holed up, the local government soon enough launched into action to help the Maasinhons.
After checking in on their families, Mercado and the city government staff rushed to execute the disaster management plans that they’ve frequently discussed. Some of their tasks involved clearing and making sure that all 70 barangays are accessible; checking on the injuries, casualties, and relief supplies; and collaborating with the national government agencies, private sector, and NGOs.
Donations poured in, but Mercado laments that aid was mostly funneled toward cities and provinces that are more “popular,” such as Siargao and Cebu.
“The typhoon devastated not only our city, but multiple provinces. Help came from the government and private sector. Whatever we receive, we receive, but usually the popular provinces get more help. Sila ‘yung kilala eh (They are the ones people are familiar with). When they say ‘Maasin,’ we’re still relatively unfamiliar. Some don’t even know that we’re part of Southern Leyte,” Mercado reveals.
By the time the Christmas season rolled in, many Maasinhons were still homeless. Relief efforts continued, and the town embodied the “Ajonay” spirit—a sense of solidarity, cooperation, volunterism, and understanding that the people of Maasin embody on a daily basis, but more so during times of trouble.
When asked about Ajonay, the 41-year-old Mayor quotes American civil rights movement leader Martin Luther King Jr., “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of convenience and comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
Mercado adds that people’s true selves are evident when they face adversity, whether they will retain their good morals even with all of the trials. Maasinhons, he stresses, were there for each other during and after the typhoon, helping their neighbor despite having almost nothing left themselves.
Recovery, however, is a long-term objective. The mayor admits that they are still working on getting back to where they were prior to the typhoon. But he shares that their progress is still something to be proud of.
“It is neither fast nor slow. Rather, we’re rehabilitating systematically based on the resources we have and what we are provided with by the national government,” Mercado explains. The key to continual progress, he shares, is being transparent to your people.
“Show them what is being done, the plans, where we are now, how we are coping, and if we’re on track. I don’t hide anything from them because the people will understand, you just have to communicate, be humble and polite.”
He says that crab mentality is often the biggest enemy when it comes to improvement and rehabilitation efforts. But Mercado knows that he has to be patient in explaining the prioritization process—determining which areas are in need of more assistance and focusing resources accordingly. After all, complicating the situation would only plant doubts in people’s heads. Doubts must be avoided at all cost, the mayor stresses, because these are difficult to recover from.
Odette further highlighted climate change and how vulnerable our country is to its effects. Mercado noted that the typhoon revealed their need to further strengthen the city’s disaster risk reduction and management system. The mayor shares that their data points out several areas that were at risk of flooding, but the typhoon flooded their entire city. The flood induced by Odette rose way beyond recorded levels. Their city hall, as mentioned, had always been strong enough to face a storm but their roof was blown off.
“Apparently, we’re susceptible to everything. Things that never happened before happened, and it could only get worse because of climate change. This is a call for concerted global action—from local governments, such as ours, to the national, private sector, NGOs, and even regular citizens. Small mistakes such as littering could create such a big negative impact [later on]. Babalikan tayo ng basura na ‘yan. Tayo ‘yung magbe-bend down sa Mother Nature (That trash will come back [to destroy us]. We have to bend down to Mother Nature). You can’t tell nature to adjust; you have to be resilient,” Mercado underscores.
Maasin City’s Odette experience is just one example of what cities all over the world are experiencing. Recently, a flash flood in Italy’s Emilia Romagna region killed 14 people. For days, over a hundred reported wildfires have been raging in Quebec, forcing people indoors and resulting in cancellation of events as their air quality reached a very high-risk level. In Thailand’s Southern Chumphon province, thousands of dead fish washed up on a beach because of a plankton bloom occurrence.
Without a doubt, something needs to be done and it can’t be achieved by government units working in isolation. Mercado says that government leaders such as himself cannot govern in a vacuum.
“It’s all about benchmarking. You cannot just stay in your place and continue what’s always been done. The world is changing very fast; every day new technologies and different approaches are being introduced. You have to think ahead, think outside the box. And you also have to respect the fact that first-world countries are ahead of us and be humble enough to accept that you need to learn from them. They also learn from us, but most of the time, they’re advanced,” Mercado admits.
Recently, he was invited to join the United States (US)’ 2023 International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP). The annual program is defined as a “premier professional exchange program [which] seeks to build mutual understanding between the US and other nations through carefully-designed short-term visits to the US for current and emerging foreign leaders.”
According to the US State Department website, program participants are all nominated and selected by the staff of US embassies all over the world. Mercado was the only participant from the Philippines and along with a delegate from Taiwan, they were the only two Asian representatives. Mercado extended his appreciation to US Ambassador to the Philippines MaryKay Carlson who sent him the invitation.
This year’s IVLP hosted 22 individuals from 20 different countries and lasted for three weeks. Participants were exposed to different programs in Washington D.C., New Orleans, New Mexico, California, and Massachusetts.
Mercado shares that they learned about sustainability efforts, cultural preservation, governance and leadership; best practices on waste and water; and harnessing technology to address and prevent problems. He adds that there are several projects that he would like to replicate and emulate in Maasin, but one major roadblock that he foresees is the mindset of the people.
“The disparity between the mindset of the people in first-world countries versus developing countries such as the Philippines is very evident. We have a lot to catch up on. [The US government is] proactive and is already working on sustainable programs, while LGUs here [in the Philippines] are still solving very basic problems—food, housing, job opportunities, education, overpopulation,” he notes.
The mayor further stresses the sense of community and patriotism in the US where there are many voluntary efforts starting from the grassroots level that are not reliant on the local government. Collaboration efforts are encouraged regardless of politics and the experts work in unison with the government—pooling resources, knowledge, and skill to achieve a certain objective.
He adds, “Here in the Philippines, everything has to start from the government level. Even our non-government organizations (NGOs) and civil society organizations (CSOs) are not strengthened. On every aspect of a town’s improvement, the LGU has to kickstart, hire people, pay consultants, [and] convince experts to help. That’s because politics preempts everything—alliances over a genuine desire to help your community. People just want to complain to the government, but we’re alone in actually solving said issues.”
Mercado cites waste segregation, traffic management, and smoking as some issues where policies have to be efficiently implemented. He laments how difficult it is to enforce rules in the Philippines, while in first-world countries, their governments can confidently put sustainable programs in place because they trust that their citizens will abide by the laws without the need for intimidation tactics.
The US, however, is not perfect, he clarifies. They still have their own set of issues that they’re struggling to address, such as mental health issues, homelessness, and drug addiction. Mercado says that our country’s local governments also have their own strengths. But it never hurts to be exposed to international solutions to further improve local approaches.
Even before partaking in the IVLP, Mercado was always keen to lead his town with a global perspective. In 2015, the United Nations (UN) formulated the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The UN’s 193 member states aim to fulfill these 17 goals addressing expansive problems that our world is facing by 2030.
Even for advanced nations, fulfilling the SDGs is a massive undertaking. A booklet on these worldwide objectives is the last thing you expect to see in the hands of the mayor of a fourth-class city in a developing nation. But this is exactly what greeted LEAGUE upon meeting Mercado in his office. As it turns out, the SDGs are also painted on the city hall’s walls, visible to the passing public.
“These SDGs guide me when it comes to creating programs and leading the city,” he says.
Mercado, it seems, is undaunted by these 17 goals—and the 169 targets they include. If anything, he considers them less as a Mt. Everest of governance, and more of a North Star that provides clarity. Working quietly in his town in the Province of Southern Leyte, his invitation to the IVLP was the validation Mercado needed that confirms he is on the right track.
It’s all about benchmarking. You cannot just stay in your place and continue what’s always been done. The world is changing very fast; every day new technologies and different approaches are being introduced. You have to think ahead, think outside the box.
Locally, however, the national government is also aware of the mayor’s efforts. Maasin City has received the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG)’s Seal of Good Local Governance (SGLG) Award for four years straight—2017, 2018, 2019, and 2022. There was no assessment for 2020 and 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Every year, the DILG adds more parameters to the SGLG. It never gets easier [to achieve the SGLG Award], if anything it gets even more challenging. But that’s okay because the SGLG and the SDGs are great motivations for us to do our best and to evaluate where our performance is lacking,” Mercado shares.
Another pressure the local chief executive experiences stems from his family background. His father, Roger Mercado, is the former Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) secretary. His mother, Luz Verano Mercado, is the Southern Leyte 1st District congresswoman; while his uncle, Damian Mercado, is the province’s current governor.
“[Our family] has to exert more effort to prove that we are working and doing our best. The pressure to deliver on our promises and create positive change is higher. Because there’s zero excuse, people will say: ‘Bakit ka magkukulang? Nandyan naman ang pamilya mo na makatutulong sa ’yo (Why would you fail? Your family’s there to help you).’ We have a deeper sense of responsibility because elected officials come and go. You cannot be complacent.”
He adds that the work of a public official never ends. It’s not a 9-to-5 job because people’s lives are in your hands. This is something he continually reminds his staff to motivate them to do their best in their departments. Problems, he adds, are also never-ending.
“No matter which LGU you are, even the richest cities in the Philippines, we all face problems. Basta kailangan pakinggan mo ‘yung problema. ‘Wag ka pumikit sa problema, ‘di naman ‘yan mawawala (You have to face the problem head-on. You cannot make the problem disappear by ignoring it). I always push the city hall staff to do their best because in the end, who benefits from it? You can rest, but don’t be lazy. It’s all about balance.”
Mercado’s third and last term ends in 2025. Without question, the young leader has made his mark in the City of Maasin with all that he has achieved through the years. True to his ambitious nature, however, he continues to set his sights even higher.
“There is a high probability that I will offer myself for a higher position. [Being elected], however, depends on the people. After all, they help me going as a public servant. When you feel tired, you have to remember that there are still marginalized sectors that need your help. There’s always something to be done; [serving] never ends,” Mercado concludes.