Gaining ground vs disaster vulnerability

January 3, 2021

by Xandra Liza C. Bisenio

The many things that people did to cope and survive the tragedies of 2020 embolden us to greet 2021 with hope  

Despite its minor contribution to greenhouse gases worldwide, the Philippines is ranked by the 2019 Climate Risk Index as 5th most affected by calamities from 1998 to 2017. An average of 20 typhoons visit it every year, and its being well within the Pacific Ring of Fire exposes it to periodic earthquakes and volcanic activities.

But what makes this exposure disastrous is our incapacity to anticipate, cope with, withstand or recover from climate hazards due to policies that cause poverty, inequality, natural resources degradation, and economic captivity. Government has allowed human activities that plunder our environment and undermine our capability as communities and as a people pull through better – for instance if we had the vital health, social and economic infrastructures to begin with.

As of latest reports, Typhoon Ulysses affected 1.2 million families in over 7,000 barangays in Regions I, II, III, CALABARZON, MIMAROPA, V, NCR and CAR with 101 casualties, Php7.3 billion and Php12.9 billion worth of damages to agriculture and infrastructure, respectively. Before the year ended meanwhile, Typhoon Vicky affected 44,000 families in 321 barangays in Regions VII, VIII, XI, and CARAGA, with 9 deaths, and Php51.1 million worth of damages to agriculture.

Still, the many things that people did to cope and survive the tragedies of 2020 embolden us to greet 2021 equipped. No matter how bad things were last year, civic action kept our hopes high.

Triumph of the human spirit

People’s participation and collective action were key to asserting and coming closer to realizing basic rights including those to food, livelihoods, and services during and in the aftermath of calamities. At the height of the crises, communities were at the center of action with some remarkable practices.

Various groups launched community kitchens when communities’ sources of income and livelihoods became precarious and eating three times a day was uncertain – after the Taal volcano eruption, during the COVID-19 pandemic, and after typhoons Quinta, Rolly, and Ulysses. Initiatives such as Tulong Anakpawis and Bayang Matulungin gathered information from farmers and urban poor community folk on the extent of damage. Depending on community needs, they called for donations in cash or kind to put together relief packs and cook food for thousands of families in need. They made sure to prepare safe and nutritious food. Every step of the way, from preparation to distribution, relied heavily on individual advocates and groups contributing and cooperating.

Through Bagsakan programs, farmers sold their goods at competitive prices defying traders’ tendency to monopolize markets and overprice. These allowed farmers to connect with consumers and sell their produce despite the government-imposed pandemic lockdown. Bagsakan are vital platforms for producer-consumer interaction. They fill in gaps in government schemes for procuring farmers’ produce in local markets at reasonable prices. Bagsakan also enabled farmers’ communities unaffected by the calamities to provide support to other farmers who were devastated by the typhoons or immobilized due to militarization.

Agriculturists’ and scientists’ group MASIPAG reported that the strongest typhoons during the past quarter – ravaging Luzon and parts of Visayas in October and November – affected almost 1,000 families belonging to its member farmer organizations. Members in other parts of the country that were not devastated responded to MASIPAG’s call for “ambagan”. They contributed various forms of relief including seeds and other resources from their diversified farms. “One of the advantages of having an organization is having a support structure in times like this,” MASIPAG regional coordinator Rowena Buena wrote.

The Bayanihan Alay sa Sambayanan (BALSA) is a nationwide multi-sectoral organized initiative that has provided relief to calamity-stricken communities for 15 years – from typhoons such as Milenyo, Ondoy, Pepeng, Pablo, and Yolanda. Efforts beyond relief-giving this year included mustering resources for cleaning aids, wheelbarrows and spades to help Rodriguez, Rizal residents. Their barangays were swamped with sticky mud from quarried mountains and they needed help clearing roads and houses so that they could return home and start on the path to recovery and rehabilitation.

Part of a bigger fight

These are only a few examples of the wide array of people’s calamity response that mobilized thousands and helped so many thousands more. These people’s initiatives were also carried out alongside discussions and actions calling out government as the duty-bearer accountable for looking after the people’s basic needs, including forging the country’s capacity for authentic resilience.

Speaking of resilience, did this not become a bit too abused a term during the pandemic and the consecutive typhoons? This tended to portray the Filipino’s positive attitude in coping with disasters as acceptance of the country’s dire situation.

I think many do know that beneath our perennial vulnerability as a people to natural hazards is the fact that there is a greater calamity that needs to be dealt with. This is neoliberalism that makes everything profit-driven and its twin of an iron hand that quells any opposition to make it easy to do business even at the expense of rights, lives, and real development.

Neoliberalism had a lot to do with the many bad things that happened in 2020. Besides poor pandemic response marred with corruption, a questionable borrowing binge and other mispriorities, and typhoons and floods damaging communities, we saw a giant media outfit taken down, truth-tellers bullied by the state, and defenders of people’s rights persecuted and killed.

The flourishing of relief and recovery movements contribute to huge positivity for 2021. These are part and parcel of the relentless mobilizations of various sectors – from study to discussions, banding together of organizations and institutions advancing the interests of the majority, to engaging one another, and to challenging the powers-that-be to do the right thing for the people as is their mandate.

Government response to this has been to try to obliterate the space for change movements. But it faces the inevitable – more Filipinos are rising up and choosing to take part in changing the situation for the better despite the odds.###