Why Disasters Happen And What Can We Do

Disasters plagued the year 2016. Last October 4, Hurricane Matthews plowed through Haiti with 145 miles per hour winds. The event took more than 500 lives. This Category 5 storm pushed to US days later and left 43 dead bodies and marred communities. The Ecuador earthquake in April 16 leveled houses, schools, and vital infrastructures. It claimed around 700 people. More than 30 countries were also affected by one of the strongest El Nino pattern in the last 20 years, causing heavily depleted water tables and damaged agricultural resources. Until today, millions of farmers are still feeling its enduring effects. Well, we can also include a huge man-made disaster in the mix. The war in Syria displaced around 430,000 people in 2016. In total, almost 5 million Syrians are seeking refuge in neighboring countries.

For the longest time, I looked at disasters as events solely determined by environmental pressures. It is even popularly regarded as an “act of God” or “fate.” I can still remember one of my high school classmates saying that the tsunami that hit Indonesia in 2004, killing around 160,000 people, was a way of “cleaning” the immoralities of this world. I encountered similar comments on the landfall of typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, killing around 6,400 people and displacing 4,000,000 others. It is not surprising that stories about catastrophic events can be found in religious texts such as the Bible and the Quran, and even great Sanskrit epics. This kind of perception, even though disconcerting, shows how the general public frame discussions related to disaster.

In the domain of stale discourse, we are demanded ask critical questions. “What is disaster?” “What is to be done?”

I think we can initiate a sounder analysis by defining what disaster is. In the academe, a disaster is now generally understood as (1) an event and (2) a process that overwhelms the capacity of vulnerable social group, economic activity, or infrastructure to resist and recover. This definition is popularized by Anthony Oliver-Smith in his essay Anthropology and the Political Economy of Disaster. It is a substantial leap from the popular approach on disaster, as environmentally-determined events, because this kind of framing factors the social vulnerabilities of people. Historically, these vulnerabilities are rooted in the subordination within a certain population. Simply speaking, disaster is both a product of environmental and social pressures. Thus, it can be better understood when analyzed at the intersection of society, technology, and environment. This definition, of course, calls for the dissolution of dichotomies like “society-environment” or “culture-nature.” These divides are parts of a larger socio-environmental totality. They actively interact. For historian Greg Bankoff, it is actually the mutualism of the two (society and environment) that lies an understanding of vulnerability and its application in revealing both the multifaceted nature of disaster, its historical roots and political context. Political economy will serve as an important analytic tool in understanding disaster. It helps us position events within the “normal” order of things. Society generates its own form of vulnerability, while political economic approach sees disaster as something that is socially constructed as well a natural phenomenon.

The case of storm surge caused by Haiyan in Tacloban, Philippines last 2013, can be used as a case for this topic. Tacloban is considered a highly urbanized first class city in the Philippines. It is the provincial capital of Leyte and has an estimated population of 242,089 as of 2015 census. It is referred to as the most populous city in the Eastern Visayas. The issue of poverty and corruption has always been associated to Philippines national and local politics. In the first semester of 2012, poverty incidence in this country was recorded at 27.9 percent. During the same period in 2015, it was estimated at 26.3 percent. It means that more than 26 million of Filipinos remain poor. And 12 million Filipinos live in extreme poverty, a categorization based on their inability to feed household members. In the Philippines, a person is not considered poor if he/she earns more than 2 dollars a day! Travesty. (Yet, the narrative of trickle-down economics has been endlessly paraded by politicians during election campaigns.)

Haiyan is one of the most powerful typhoons ever to make landfall in recorded history. It is a Category 5 typhoon with maximum sustained winds reaching 315 kph and with gusts up to 379 kph. The extent of its damage was reported to be around 36 billion pesos (717,775,200 US dollars). It destroyed roughly 550,000 houses and damaged 600,000 others. In just a day, it displaced almost 4,000,000 people. Haiyan heavily affected communities located at the coastal zones of Tacloban. The barrage of storm surge virtually flattened local communities. Government officials later disclosed that most of the affected communities were positioned within hazard zones. Majority of those affected are included in the State-defined poverty matrix. As pictured by the local media, the word “storm surge” never existed, and was never viewed a threat, until Haiyan.

Factors that we can attribute in this disaster…

1. Poor urban planning and lack of basic social services such as quality housing (infrastructural vulnerability).

2. Communities and leaders lack adequate knowledge on storm surge caused by super typhoons (informational vulnerability).

3. Huge chasm of socio-economic inequality and issues of misspent public money (economic vulnerability).

4. Disjoint between local government officials and national government officials (political vulnerability)

These are major structural conditions and vulnerabilities that enable disaster. In addition, a major problem that is also observable is how government officials and agencies approach disaster as a socio-environmental problem. They design programs and policies focused on disaster mitigation, not prevention. This is an outdated framing that lacks long-term vision and sustainability. Again, disaster is a process and an event. We need to assess and address the overlapping vulnerabilities, created by maladaptive social processes, in order to avoid or reduce the impact of environmental stress. We also need to understand why there are sub-population more affected within a larger society. It highlights the question, ‘what makes them more vulnerable than others?’

Final Thoughts…

Environmental pressures will only increase under the shroud of global climate change. That’s for certain. We are currently experiencing the strongest storms, longest droughts, and hottest global temperatures. We need to build (both literally and figuratively) better communities that are resilient to the challenges of times.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” – Charles Darwin