The gift of disasters

Contemplating the massive devastation wrought by last week’s floods, many of us are prompted to do two things we do not ordinarily do.  One, we start to “count our blessings” and re-assess our values. Two, from our self-absorption, we slowly wake up to our responsibility to help maintain the delicate balance between our way of life and the environment in which we live. In this sense — for all the deaths, the injury, the suffering, the destruction, and the anxiety they cause — disasters are a gift.

The well-off among us who live in posh but flood-prone communities may, of course, decide that what they need most to acquire right away is a sturdy collapsible rubber dinghy for use in emergencies.  If that were all the wisdom we could draw from this experience, then the gift would have been wasted.  This private solution to a collective problem is ultimately as self-defeating as the purchase of individual generator sets in a time of recurrent power interruptions, or the installation of household booster pumps in a time of weak water pressure.  They conceal from us the complex picture in which the problem is embedded. Yet, it is no longer surprising to encounter these limited solutions in a society where privately-owned vehicles endlessly proliferate in the absence of an efficient public transportation system.  All of these are private adaptations to situations requiring a long-term societal response.

But it is a good sign when we learn to count our blessings in the face of misfortune.  The floods have given us the occasion to realize how much useless junk we accumulate in our homes, how many dormant vehicles lie in our garages far in excess of our requirements, and who or what matters most to us in the face of death and danger.   A disaster is a rare chance to review the values by which we have conducted our lives.

We learn that lightness makes it easy to move about, and that having few attachments means minimal loss.  We learn to care, to empathize, and to share what we have.  We discover what residual heroism there might be in each one of us.  We grope for meanings as we sort out the vague uneasiness we feel when we see images of hunger and dislocation among our people.  Only then do we realize that we feel like that because we are actually in mourning.  It is a powerful moment for solidarity.

Most of all, disasters summon us to responsibility.  But this can only happen if we break the mystery in which they tend to be encoded.  If we cannot get beyond seeing them as “acts of God,” then we will never hear the call for us to explain ourselves.  If they are acts of God, then we cannot be responsible for them.  But when we begin to see that, although we cannot fully explain them, disasters have a historical dimension in which we are very much implicated, then we become answerable – if not to ourselves as human beings, then to God.  Interestingly, the Czech philosopher Jan Patocka traces the birth of religion to the human experience of responsibility, i.e. the need to make an accounting of ourselves – in the words of Jacques Derrida – to the “one who regards without being seen but also whose infinite goodness gives in an experience that amounts to a gift of death.”

Perhaps it is in this light that we might appreciate urban planner Felino Palafox’s lament (Inquirer 10/02/09) on seeing the destruction caused by the killer floods.  “This is not an act of God, as what people have already said.  This is a sin of omission on the part of government and leadership.”  He brings up a 1977 World Bank study titled “Metro Manila Transport, Land Use and Development Planning Project” that drew a land use which took into account the recurrent floods in low-lying sections of the metropolis.  “Practically all the measures outlined in the study could have addressed the flooding we are seeing these days,” he says.

The responsibility has to be borne not just by the successive administrations of government, but also by the private sector. Palafox asks, “Government knows what the flood lines are.  Why did developers of subdivisions allow construction of housing projects below the flood lines?”  In another story in the same Inquirer issue, civil engineer Enrico Cruz, a longtime resident of Marikina, confirms Palafox’s account but widens the scope of accountability.  Cruz says: “Collectively, it was our fault.  We allowed loggers, kaingin (slash and burn), subdivision developers, mining, and quarrying in the mountains.  We didn’t say anything.  We didn’t care.”

These are useful accounts that greatly help us understand the formation of killer flash floods.  They will surely constitute elements of a definitive and updated flood report that identifies the causes, the dangers, the most vulnerable areas, and the early warning and mitigation measures needed to avert massive loss in lives and property.

But the translation of ecological knowledge into concrete programs and new regulations is seldom as easy as it seems.  The time agenda of environmental issues does not coincide with the political agenda. Ecological problems that produce disasters build up over a long period.  They are slow epic telenovelas compared to the episodic sitcoms of politics.   Thus, what seems urgent today quickly recedes into the backburner of politics, only to resurface when disaster strikes again.  No wonder one of the biggest casualties of every disaster is the government itself.

All of us, however, without waiting for government to enact the laws, can profit from the gift of disasters if we learn to integrate their mystery into our lives.  We show that when we take responsibility.

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