SYSTEM AT FAULT: Probing the Philippines’ disaster preparedness
■ Aldrin Villegas
The cracks are about to move—the West Valley Fault (WVF) is on the verge of unleashing “the big one,” an impending earthquake expected to hit parts of Bulacan, Rizal, Cavite, Laguna, and Metro Manila. The fault moves roughly every 400 years, and the time is ripe for another potential rupture.
Once it occurs, the effects can be more devastating in a highly urbanized and densely populated setting (see sidebar). In a worst-case scenario, the expected 7.2 magnitude quake could cause over 37,000 fatalities, 605,000 injuries and almost P2.5 trillion in economic losses, according to reports from the Greater Metro Manila Risk Analysis Project.
An earthquake can strike without warning and wreak havoc, but the quake itself does not kill. The grounds will tremble because of the fault, but the crux of a national disaster lies in a system at fault.
As a country located along the Ring of Fire, a region in the Pacific where much earthquakes, typhoons, and volcanic eruptions occur, the Philippines is under constant threat of natural disasters. What makes the expected WVF earthquake “the big one” is the country’s vulnerability—projected to be worst of all disasters in terms of damages and casualties.
The estimated 37,000 deaths are way higher than the 8,000 lives claimed by the deadliest recorded earthquake, which occurred in Mindanao in 1976. “The big one” also projects the same 7.2 magnitude as the October 2013 Bohol earthquake, but the latter’s casualty stood at 222 lives.
Vulnerability is the human dimension of disasters. Beyond the natural causes, disasters result from compounded social, economic, and political factors that shape people’s lives, according to Asst. Prof. Victor Obedicen of UP College of Social Work and Community Development. Inequalities plague these factors, with the poor being more vulnerable in times of disaster.
“Historically, ang talagang biktima ng mga disaster ay mahihirap. Nasa danger zones sila, kulang sa resources para sa maayos na bahay, kulang sa kaalaman kasi walang access sa edukasyon,” Obedicen said. This further manifests the perennial structural and institutional problems that are yet to be addressed, he added.
Disaster preparedness is thus linked to the project of development, as problems of poverty and inequality are even more pronounced in provinces and local communities. As such, the government must recognize the varying needs of communities and validate the effectiveness of standard policies, according to Emmanuel Garcia of UP Department of Geography.
“National policies should be coupled with local initiatives to fit in the [locality’s] defined hazards. Kailangang pag-aralan ‘yung unique characteristics ng community para mailapat sa social reality,” Garcia said.
While natural disasters may strike without prejudice, the path to recovery is much less equal. The very institutions that should provide capacities for the vulnerable sectors are likewise the ones that make them only vulnerable.
“We can’t just be battling against disasters without knowing how our history unfolded,” UP Resilience Institute Director Mahar Lagmay said. Although natural disasters frequently occur in the country, the past records of disaster preparedness and response have been dismal.
Government response in the Bohol earthquake in 2013, for example, was criticized by then Mayor Leoncio Evasco of Maribojoc town because of delayed assistance. A year after the earthquake, Evasco said the “policy side” of rehabilitation was reached but actual implementation was slow.
Three weeks after the quake, the country was lashed by super typhoon Yolanda—the strongest typhoon recorded in Philippine history. The National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) admitted that they were unprepared for such scale of devastation, leaving over a thousand missing and 6,340 fatalities, feared to be more.
Various groups criticized the government’s blunders in responding to the situation. According to the United Nations, thousands of families were forced to relocate to evacuation camps with many living in shanties, often without power or water. “It is a demolition, not a construction job,” CNN anchor Anderson Cooper said in his Yolanda coverage, slamming the disorganized aid operations in affected areas.
These events necessitated institutionalizing reforms in existing DRRM laws and programs such as Republic Act 10121, which shifted disaster framework from “relief and response” to “risk reduction and management.” Such programs are essential components now of city and municipality development plans, which better cope with the locality’s hazards. However, a lot still needs to be done in terms of implementation, Lagmay said.
Disaster management is an integral part of development and should not be treated as a separate discipline. Community-based DRRM should be practiced in line with development by the people, for the people, and with the people, in the form of participatory and inclusive governance.
“Ibig sabihin nito, makikipamuhay ka sa kanila—angkinin mo ang aspirations, pangarap, at pamamaraan ng pamumuhay para mainitindihan at magagap mo bakit ganito [ang sitwasyon nila],” Obedicen said.
This enables the conception of a structured approach for communities to better fit their realities, especially for the poor that almost live under permanent conditions of disaster. In order to survive this harsh reality on a daily basis, the poor must have a sense of contingency—which they do—but the government still has a lot of work to do to strengthen their capacity.
Responding to “the big one” requires a bigger perspective in understanding the multidimensionality and root of the problem. One is that the vulnerability of people in the densely populated metropolis is linked to development issues in the provinces.
People from other regions migrate to the capital, seeking economic opportunities and social services that they may be deprived of back at home. Some are forcibly displaced because of land eviction, land grabbing, and even political persecution like those in conflict areas, Obedicen added.
“The communities are the primary victims of disasters, but they are also the primary responders to it,” Garcia said. We should not assume that communities start from zero, that they have no level of capacity and recourse, according to Obedicen. A bottom-up approach is thus necessary to understand how people survive despite living in dangerous zones and harsh conditions.
Beyond this, the goal of development should be to change these conditions to pave the way for resilience—free from systemic and structural inequalities that make the people vulnerable in times of disasters.After all, the people are the ones in the frontline when disaster ensues—the ones who suffer when a system is at fault, the ones who stand their ground when the cracks begin to move. ■
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