Poverty and the disaster threshold

With at least 400 people dead in Bicol and Southern Tagalog in the wake of super typhoon “Reming,” we may expect, yet again, another round of national reflection aimed at gathering lessons and lecturing our people on natural disasters.  This is a favorite sport of politicians. Unfortunately, such reflection yields little by way of self-understanding because we fail to recognize that the one thing that makes living in these islands particularly disaster-filled is mass poverty itself.

Many like to believe we are being singled out for punishment by Nature.  This belief has a certain plausibility in view of the unnecessary damage we have mindlessly inflicted on this beautiful archipelago. But, in truth, Nature is neither grateful nor vengeful.  Its ways are not moral or immoral.  There are no such things as natural disasters; there are only such things as natural phenomena with sometimes disastrous consequences.

The Earth is one planet, and it is round.  It is reasonable to assume that risks from natural phenomena are equally distributed geographically.  Some people die from tsunamis and typhoons. On the other side of the world, they die from floods and severe winters. What ultimately determines the body count is the capacity of people to shield themselves from the worst effects of these devastating events.  Poverty is many things, but above all, it is vulnerability.  It is, in the first instance, what makes people live on the slopes of active volcanoes or build their shanties on the banks of powerful rivers.

On a motorcycling trip to Bicol that I recently undertook with some friends, I had a chance to follow side roads and visit communities that were not normally part of the tourist track.  I couldn’t but be struck by the contrast between the ominous beauty of Mayon Volcano and the awesome poverty of the people living in its shadows.  Rising from a level landscape like an altar to a powerful god, Mayon was visible from almost any of the byways we took. I do not know of any other Philippine mountain that could command meekness by its sheer majesty.  Outside the poblaciones, it is difficult to say if the villagers have learned to live with typhoons and volcanic eruptions, but one could easily read their deep fatalism from the perilous location and structural frailty of their dwellings.

In the civilized world, such sites would have long been declared unfit for human habitation.  They are beautiful but fatal to live in.  They include known geological fault lines, the slopes of active volcanoes, river banks given to unpredictable rises in water level, dried up river beds, and places along regular typhoon corridors.  Poverty compels people to ignore the risks they pose; political opportunism makes politicians close their eyes to the dangers to which their constituencies expose themselves.  What gives potency to both is that the risks are not immediate or always apparent.

In this sense, so-called natural calamities are as much the products of nature as they are of human beings.  What is interesting is that our political leaders are aware of this.  They give way and listen to the lectures of scientists whenever a natural phenomenon is attended by many deaths and massive destruction.  Science somehow frees them from assuming direct responsibility for the tragedy.  They quickly translate the scientific messages into warnings issued to the public. But they themselves are totally incapable of incorporating the practical implications of science into their decision-making process. Every year we go through this ritual in the proceedings of the National Disaster Coordinating Council, with little effect on what government itself needs to do to prevent these disasters.

That this pattern of benign neglect by political leaders seldom becomes a political issue shows how relatively immune we have become to disasters.  We take these things as acts of God, rather than as events whose destructive effects a nation can reasonably shield its citizens from.

While it has become commonplace for the mass media to report disasters in terms of dead people and billions of pesos in destroyed property and infrastructure, there are no objective criteria by which to define a disaster. Nicholas Rescher, a scholar who writes on risk, observes: “Rich and poor have different disaster thresholds (what constitutes a disaster for one is merely a loss for the other), so that the wealthy have a better chance of being able to offset risks against opportunities than do the poor.”

The truth is our disaster threshold as a nation is extremely low.  We suffer much from every visiting calamity, and we recover ever so slowly.  We are familiar with the language of relief, but we hardly know the vocabulary of prevention. We have become so used to loss that we hardly remember what it is to live a secure life.

But the responsibilities of a modern state are different.  If a nation cannot secure its citizens from the ravages of the most basic natural disasters, how can it be expected to protect them from the timebound hazards that attend many of today’s political decisions?  The unexamined provisions of the Japan-Philippine Economic Partnership Agreement pertaining to toxic wastes easily come to mind.  The political system is ultimately society’s tool for observing risks. But it works only to the extent that it makes room for oppositional views.


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