(Originally published in the Phil. Online Chronicles last November 2013)
1. Some basic terms to keep in mind: hazard, disaster, risk, vulnerability.
Hazards are natural occurrences like storms, strong winds, heavy rain, erthquakes, and volcanic eruptions. Disasters are what you call the impact of hazards on people, their lives, and property. Risk is high the chance someone will experience a disaster. Vulnerability is how intense the disaster’s impact will be on someone.
2. We are not helpless against disasters
It is wrong to say that we cannot do anything regarding disasters. Given the current level of technology of mankind, we cannot control the weather, the earth’s crust, etc. That is true. But we can control its effects on people. That’s why disaster risk reduction and management (DRRM) experts use the terms ‘hazard’ and ‘disaster’: to show the difference between the two.
For example, we can’t control how much rain is dumped by a typhoon. But we can control the other factors which lead to flooding in our community. If the mountains near our community are de-forested, less rainwater is absorbed into the ground, meaning there’s a bigger chance of flooding. If the community grounds are fully cemented, rainwater is prevented from being absorbed into the ground, meaning there’s a bigger chance of flooding.
‘If we cannot prevent disasters from fully happening, we can at least lessen its impact on lives and property. Going back to the example of floods, deaths of people can be averted if they are evacuated on time. And if dams are prevented from releasing their stored water all at once during a typhoon, it won’t catch people by surprise.
3. DRRM is better than disaster relief and aid
This doesn’t take a DRRM expert to figure out. One only has to know the old adage: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. For example, no amount of relief and aid will ever bring back our loved ones to life. From that point of view alone, DRRM is priceless.
4. Disasters do not make the rich and poor equal
The number one factor that increases a person’s vulnerability to disasters is poverty. Remember typhoon Ondoy? It caused floods which swallowed up the posh homes of certain showbiz celebrities. How did they cope? They simply took some money from their fat bank accounts to buy a new hand.
Contrast it with the experience of poor farmers in the rural areas. Not only were their homes destroyed, so was their source of livelihood: flood waters have a way of killing the crops you planted. Given the characteristic of the agricultural sector in the country today, most farmers have debts, not savings. They do not have surplus money to rebuild their homes and absorb the impact of lost income.
What does this mean? DRRM efforts should prioritize and focus on helping the poor.
DRRM comes first before disaster relief and aid. And among the various aspects of DRRM, poverty alleviation should come first.
5. Disasters and human rights
Every person has a right to life. Not just the right to exist, but the right to exist decently. The right to live decently of disaster survivors is violated by the conditions which are present in the aftermath of a disaster.
Who has the responsibility to protect the rights of people? No one else but the government. It’s basic governance and political science: individuals conceded part of their ‘absolute freedoms’ to the authority of governments. In exchange, the governments should maintain the quality of life of the people under them.
In the same way that no one in their right mind would allow private corporations to take over the education and health sectors, no private entity should be expected to take over the duties of the government in upholding the rights of people in a disaster.
From a more practical point of view, governments are primarily accountable and responsible since they have the power of taxation, they have the funds, and they have the resources. They also have the force of law with them.