Changing the way we look at disasters

published 8 Feb,MST

Here’s the usual story when a disaster occurs: A community goes about its business. Nature strikes, and with a fury. It could be a storm, an earthquake, a volcanic eruption. From the resulting floods, landslides or tsunamis, lives and property are lost. There is a mad scramble to offer relief operations. Victims mourn their losses and blame the government. The bayanihan feeling prompts donations from anywhere and everywhere. Politicians trip over each other to hand out goods to those in need. The disaster and its results hog the headlines.

And then the next big piece of news comes along. Public attention wanes and the issue is forgotten by everybody except the victims who must rebuild their homes, and hopes. That is, until the next disaster happens somewhere else in the country. Then the cycle begins all over again.

Last week’s UP Academic Congress, held at the Malcolm Theater at the College of Law, devoted one afternoon to the topic Climate Change and Disaster Risk Reduction. Antonio La Viña, dean of the Ateneo School of Government and an adviser to the Philippine government on matters pertaining to global warming, said that environmental law and policy had become popular recently. Filipinos, having experienced disaster up close, are now more interested in the subject. Science tells us that a warmer globe breeds more frequent and more violent storms. After Ondoy and Pepeng, we realize it’s more than science.

La Viña said that the failure of world leaders to come up with a decisive, adequate and legally binding climate deal in Copenhagen, Denmark last December was liberating. It made him realize that the focus now, at least for the Philippines, should be adaptation. The effects of global warming are already upon us. The Philippines is an archipelago, and it is located in a typhoon-prone corner of the world. A significant part of the population is poor, without any capabilities to defend themselves against the forces of nature.

Earthquakes are another type of disaster altogether, although the causes have less to do with the atmosphere than the surface of the earth. Alfredo Mahar Lagmay, PhD is the geologist who caused quite a stir recently when he published an article in another newspaper telling Metro Manila residents to brace for a magnitude 7.2 earthquake anytime. Lagmay is no Nostradamus. He is a man of science, and because of that, his words take on an even greater significance. He said that Filipinos should adopt a culture of safety, and real estate developers should fully disclose to their buyers the geological profile of the property.

That afternoon, however, Lagmay talked about the rain-gauge technology needed to enable citizens and the government to tell whether a preventive evacuation should be put in place. The devices, sophisticated though not necessarily costly, can prevent massive loss of life, property—and opportunities.


On the other hand, Emmanuel Luna, PhD talked about the challenges and causes for optimism in the way the country deals with disaster risk. Luna is professor of community development at the UP and is an advocate of community-based action in minimizing the devastation brought by natural disasters.

A paradigm shift is needed, Luna explained, especially for a nation so used to “emergency responses.” That the Philippines is disaster-prone and its people are vulnerable are already a given. Knowing these, we need to change the attitude and the approach so that while we cannot prevent disasters from happening, we can anticipate them so they cause as little damage as possible.

The problem is that there exist socio-economic and political structures that give rise to vulnerability. Luna cites the same absence of a culture of safety on one hand and a culture of mendicancy on the other. We always expect the government to take care of our needs especially in emergency situations. During these tough times, the norms are vague as to the extent of emergency relief. When should it end and when should rehabilitation begin? Then, moves by government officials are always suspect because they tend to exploit the situation to boost their political stock. Functions of the various agencies of the government and non-government organizations duplicate each other or overlap. Sometimes there is competition in the delivery of services. On the other hand,bureaucratic procedures cause delay. Last, there is no means with which to measure the increase or decrease in vulnerability of a certain community.

We have seen all these in disasters past. The question is whether we are inclined to repeat them.

Luna lauded Congress’ action in the would-be Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act of 2010. At least one good thing came out of the just-concluded congressional sessions, despite the seemingly misplaced priorities of our lawmakers. President Arroyo will sign the bill into law anytime soon, and many are hopeful, despite observations that the law is less than perfect (it could have been better, for instance, if somebody other than the secretary of national defense,who already has too much on his plate, disaster or no, would head an independent disaster risk reduction body)

But for the first time, the reduction and management of disaster risk is institutionalized, and coordination among the national government, local governments, non-government organizations, people’s organizations, the academe,the media and the private sector is recognized. The law is a “holistic, comprehensive, integrated and pro-active means to address vulnerabilities,” said Luna in his presentation. He concludes his talk by stressing the importance of community-based action, because it is participatory and hence truly empowering.


It was standing room only in the theater and after the three well-applauded presentations, members of the audience were encouraged to ask questions. A man in a white shirt approached the microphone, a bit reluctantly. He introduced himself as Ka Rod, a fisherman, who lived in one of the communities around the Laguna Lake. He apologized for not being able to relate to the most part of the presentations—because they were in English.

Ka Rod had to pause a moment to collect himself; he almost broke down as he talked about his home. He said that five months after Ondoy, their lives still had not returned to normal. His house was still submerged in water. He then asked the panel if there were any programs to educate “kaming mga nasa ibaba,” the very members of the community, to prepare for further disasters. They had seen enough blaming among different government and non-government agencies, he said. In the end, the really vulnerable ones just want to know how they could better help themselves, and start doing so.

The contrast between the comprehensive presentations by experts and the concerns of the unassuming fisherman was what was perhaps most compelling about the session, and the whole debate on climate change and disaster preparedness. It is obvious we have a lot of great thinkers, bright ideas and sound policy. But the real test is translating all these into action that could spell the difference between life and death for the most vulnerable Filipinos. This requires consistency and will, —even on days when the sun is shining and the ground seems steady.