Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Building Disaster-Resilient Communities - A book review

by Yeb Sano

"The wonderful quality of human beings is that we can overcome even absolute terror, and we do."
-- Isabel Allende

My real baptism into the disaster risk reduction advocacy literally involved a torrent of water. On November 29, 2004, as Typhoon Winnie unleashed its might, the torrential rains started heaving at noontime and with scarcely any let up, it carried on into the dead of the night.
The people on the eastern coast of Luzon were no strangers to ugly weather, as over a dozen tropical storms pass through each year. But for the towns of Real, Infanta, and General Nakar all in the province of Quezon, this particular night was different. The heavy rains set off not the mere onslaught of floodwaters. The flood was thicker than water, as trees, mud, lumber, boulders, trees, sand, and more lumber rumbled down the slopes from the mountains. Later, human bodies and household items joined the muddle in what was the among the worst disaster episodes in the Philippines pre-Ondoy(2009) and post-Ormoc(1991). The last count puts 1,068 people dead and over a thousand badly hurt and over 500 still unaccounted for after landslides and mudslides wreaked havoc in this part of Quezon, as the Agos River swelled to unprecedented proportions. Survivors retell how they watched loved ones get swallowed by the rampaging amalgam of debris and their homes get swept away by torrents of mud and timber. Witnesses described violent flows of mud crashing down on homes and bodies were seen drifting with household appliances, debris, garbage, and hunks of wood.

While the country still debates on what really causes every particular disaster event, the people in the communities will have to deal with the slow and arduous process of rebuilding their lives. They will have to stand up and muster the courage to go on with their lives after losing family members and friends, re-erect their homes, restore their means of livelihood, and rejoin others in getting the community back on its feet. The task is by no means simple. Some disasters have brought our communities 20 years backwards in terms of development. It is imperative that in picking up the pieces, they are guided by a framework and a set of tools and more importantly, inspiration, that will genuinely help them in building resilient communities. This calls for a disaster response approach that will reduce their vulnerability and enhance their capacities in dealing with disasters. This means that any approach to risk-reduction must address the underlying causes of the disaster. Determining the root causes is also by no means simple. These cannot be determined through a privilege speech in Congress, nor through knee-jerk reactions and technical rationalizations. The society at large sees disasters as a function of physical occurrences – heavy rains, deforestation, soil saturation. Using a development-oriented approach PROUDLY RETOLD IN THE BDRC EXPERIENCE, we can view disasters as a function of people’s vulnerability. In this way, we can study the situation in the context of the underdevelopment of the affected communities.

To many of us, 2004 was a milestone year and we thought it would have been a significant turning point in the way our nation looked at disasters.

But in 2009, the disasters brought about by Ondoy and Pepeng still happened.

It is indeed a huge challenge, especially in the context of pursuing long-term human and social development that the Philippines faces a lot of disasters relative to the rest of the world. But the greater tragedy is when we let such natural calamities destroy our collective minds and spirit as a people.

It is in this light that for each and every disaster event we face, we renew our bayanihan spirit, always reborn and rekindled in the aftermath of every disaster. Aptly so, because most of us realize the wisdom that those who are most vulnerable of course deserve a better fighting chance, and equitable access to a bright future.

But our experience as a people prone to disasters, also challenges us to distill lessons we need to learn, so that we are able to cope better collectively. Hence, this volume of stories and lessons and best practices is an impressive and inspiring distillation of the dozens if not hundreds of triumphs in our communities.

In the face of disasters, we can look at worldwide literature on disasters and we will find chronicles of the extreme relevance of community-based approaches as the literature makes the case.

I am extremely delighted to have a new local book. I still have my tattered and well-worn Heijmans and Victoria book, and now I have this volume with stories about Filipinos told by Filipinos, as a worthy addition to my personal library.

The collective lessons we can learn spans all our major islands, from Infanta to Ipil, from Sorsogon to Sibugay, from Marinduque to Cebu, from Albay to Iloilo, and even in the halls of Congress.

Rebuilding the lives of the communities affected by disaster presents different challenges. But the book offers us a good glimpse into the approaches that work and gives us a good picture of the innovations as well as the intrinsic knowledge that make our communities disaster-resilient.

Whether this is incidental or intentional, it embraces principles that are very close to my heart – inclusiveness and transformation. In so doing, it surely answers the question of relevance, because we always need to be reminded why we need to do what we are doing, or more importantly, for WHOM.

Indeed, the lessons that many in the forefront – community development workers, social workers, people's organizations, committed CSOs, and LGUs, have distilled in this book, will of course be relevant not only to the communities whose stories are told in this volume, but moreso to the rest of the tens of thousands of communities all over our islands. Its relevance is also underscored by the fact that this will be an important input for those tasked to craft national and local policies.

For a public servant like me, the outputs and results of these stories give literally a flesh and blood and spatial dimension to the task of policy formulation and implementation.

Climate change is the defining issue and challenge of our generation. The tasks and responsibilities of the Climate Change Commission are by no means simple. It also has crucial implications on the way we all endeavor to build resilient communities and pursue community development.

We owe it to our children and the future generations to equip them with the story of our travails, and hopefully our triumphs, in printed legacy.

I congratulate the authors and editors for this meaningful work, and I am certainly hopeful that the story-telling will live on.

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