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Disasters and the local community

http://opinion.inquirer.net/89615/disasters-and-the-local-community
Randy David
There is nothing we can do to stop natural phenomena like typhoons, earthquakes
and tsunamis from visiting our country. They are part of Natures system. But there
is a lot we can do to prevent them from causing death and destructionthat 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,
Im sure, could have been avoided if appropriate warnings had been given and
heeded.
This time the responsibility cannot be laid at the door of Pagasathe Philippine
Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administrationthe 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 countrys 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
structurethe 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 communitys 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 activatedjust 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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