Disasters and the local community

There is nothing we can do to stop natural phenomena like typhoons, earthquakes and tsunamis from visiting our country. They are part of Nature’s system. But there is a lot we can do to prevent them from causing death and destruction—that is, from becoming disasters. Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as a “natural” disaster. Take note: NDRRMC stands for National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council. But, habits die hard, and many Filipinos continue to think the “N” refers to “natural.”

Unless we can free ourselves from the fatalism in which the word “disaster” (i.e., as “malevolent astral influence”) is entwined, all warnings and preparations aimed at preventing the loss of life and damage to property will have little resonance in our everyday life. It bears repeating that what happens to us during a storm or an earthquake is not in our stars, but in the way we live.

A quick look at the partial list of people whose deaths are traceable to Typhoon “Lando” (international name: “Koppu”) reveals three causes: drowning (nine cases), buried by landslides (five cases), and hit by a fallen tree (two cases). All of them, I’m sure, could have been avoided if appropriate warnings had been given and heeded.

This time the responsibility cannot be laid at the door of Pagasa—the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration—the national government agency in charge of monitoring and providing information on the weather and the climate. This office has learned a lot from past experience, and today we probably have some of the best weather scientists in this part of the world, judging from the accuracy of their reports.

Pagasa began issuing bulletins on Lando as early as Oct. 14. It has put out at least 21 updates just on this particular cyclone, indicating its likely path, strength, wind speed and the amount of rainfall it is expected to bring. From the start, Lando appeared to be an unusual type of storm. It moved very slowly over the warm Philippine Sea, gathering strength and a great amount of moisture as it headed westward toward Northern Luzon.

On Oct. 16, or two days later, the update showed Lando, now ringed by a wide rain band, drifting slightly west-southwest. On this course, it was expected to make landfall, not in Tuguegarao, Cagayan, but in Casiguran, Aurora. Once it hit land, it would linger like a waterlogged lantern for about four days over much of Central and Northern Luzon. Its winds would weaken as soon as it made landfall, but the rains it would dump on this region would be more than enough to fill the dams. The intense rainfall would cause severe flooding and landslides. All of that has come to pass.

Still, the number of deaths has risen to 30. Damage to property and infrastructure has been estimated at more than P5 billion, so far. The greatest damage will be borne by farmers, whose crops may still be under water until now. This vast stretch of fertile land is the country’s rice, corn and vegetable bowl. It is also where the most productive brackish-water fishponds are located. When silted rivers overflow their banks, the floodwaters pour into these low-lying fishponds, and their owners lose everything.

Almost 100,000 families have been displaced from their homes, and most of them have sought shelter in evacuation centers. We can be certain that their needs are being adequately attended to, not only because local politicians tend to put their best foot forward during the election season, but also because the Department of Social Welfare and Development and the NDRRMC are more than ready to respond, having picked up many valuable lessons from the Typhoon “Yolanda” crisis.

It is the local communities, however, that are often not sufficiently organized and prepared to face the challenges posed by extreme weather disturbances. The barrios of old have long lost their function as mechanisms of collective self-help and solidarity. The barangay unit that replaced the barrio remains basically a political structure—the lowest rung in the state system. Its officials are conditioned to take their orders from those above them. Even as it is supposed to be insulated from partisan politics, the barangay, in reality, functions as the electoral mobilizing arm of municipal and provincial politicians.

Several consequences follow from this. For most residents, the sense of identity with the community is lost, and, with it, pride in the community itself. The feeling of collective responsibility for the community’s wellbeing vanishes as people learn to rely on the resources political patrons from the higher echelons of government promise. The Local Government Code sought to institutionalize community initiative through the barangay development council, but, alas, this formal structure has rarely been activated—just as the barangay assemblies themselves are seldom convened.

In my view, any serious attempt to build a resilient and disaster-proof nation must begin with the revival of the participatory spirit that once animated the local barrio. Only an active community that is imbued with a deep sense of local pride can have any real stake in shielding its people from danger or in protecting its habitat from degradation.

The barangay is a local government unit, and, as such, it operates through the medium of law and power. In contrast, the medium of the local community is solidarity (“damayan” in Filipino), and what triggers this is not law or authority, but the moral identity of its constituent families. The two must not be confused. In one, the reference point is the state; in the other, it is the community.

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