WAYWARD AND FANCIFUL: Disaster Recovery and Resistance in the Grassroots

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/03 October) — The frequency of disasters occurring in the Philippines had started to decline since 2005. In 2011, however, the figures suddenly rose by more than half – from 202 disaster events in 2010 to 431 in 2011.

The Philippine Disaster Report 2011 released by the Citizens’ Disaster Response Center (CRDRC) showed that 11.7 million Filipinos were adversely affected by natural disasters that year. Floods made up close to 30 percent of these disaster events, affecting 4.6 million people. The less frequent tropical cyclones affected close to 10.3 million people.

In 2011, the most destructive tropical cyclone to hit the country was Tropical Storm Sendong. It swept in from the vicinity of Hinatuan, Surigao del Sur on December 15 on its way to hit in the next two days the provinces of Agusan del Sur, Bukidnon and Misamis Oriental, including the cities of Cagayan de Oro and El Salvador. Sendong caused torrential downpour that would dump a record 24-hour rainfall, enough to wash away entire villages in Cagayan de Oro and Iligan.

With about 1,400 lives lost to Sendong contributing to the 1,924 people killed by natural disasters that year, the country came in second only to tsunami-hit Japan in terms of casualties from natural disasters. In Mindanao, Typhoon Sendong significantly contributed to bring up the figures of disaster-affected population close to 5 million individuals or 868,720 families. Before Sendong, Mindanao was the region least affected by climate-related calamities.

Human-initiated disasters, on the other hand, made up 27 percent of total disaster events in 2011, but affected only one percent of the total population. Armed conflict, in particular, claimed 58 lives. Apparently, since the resumption of the government’s peace negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the National Democratic Front (NDF) in 2010, armed skirmishes in Mindanao had been largely due to law enforcement operations, rido or clan feuds, and ambuscades that resulted at best in brief armed encounters.

Despite the Philippine government’s avowed emphasis on the primacy of the peace process, however, the threat of armed conflict affecting local communities still looms over Mindanao where many non-state armed groups are known to operate. There is still the need therefore to capacitate local communities for disaster risk reduction and management (DRRM), pursuant to Republic Act 10121 (Philippine Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act of 2010) which was approved on 27 May 2010. The law mandates all government units down to the local level to partner with stakeholders for the development, promotion, and implementation of a comprehensive DRRM plan. The implementation of this law is underway, although not at a uniform pace for all barangays in Mindanao.

The Mindanao Resilient Communities Project, a research project undertaken by the Alternate Forum for Research in Mindanao through the Center of Psychological Extension and Research Services of the ADDU, aims to understand how disasters affect communities and what the local residents are doing in response. In 2011, MRCP explored the local context of nine conflict-affected communities by gathering oral histories and community narratives from the affected villagers themselves. Months later, we homed in on remarkable efforts during the first half of 2012 in response to some disaster risks more peculiar to Mindanao, highlighting homegrown measures adopted by local government units, initiatives of local residents to deal with natural and man-made calamities and reduce risks, actual emergency responses of communities, and enhancement of grassroots resiliency skills.

In particular, these were about the application of psychosocial intervention for preschool children in the wake of intense joint law enforcement operations in their home community (Zamboanga Sibugay), the establishment of early warning, early response (EWER) mechanisms in flood-prone (Naawan, Misamis Oriental) and rebel transit areas (Aleosan, North Cotabato and Kolambugan, Lanao del Norte), and convergence of concerned stakeholders to capacitate local residents with basic life support skills to deal with storm surge and typhoon injuries (Iligan City).

The stories we found echo several cross-cutting themes.

In these villages, local governance is functional and the standing committees are able to draw and sustain the involvement not only of their constituents but also their respective network of external support agencies. This was done through the careful selection of the composition of these committees. In Aleosan, Dualing villagers had come together to formulate a disaster risk assessment as precursor to the development and implementation of its BDRRM plan. Dualing heeded the advice of Balay Rehabilitation Center to invest portions of its Emergency Relief Fund allocation in the purchase of radios and other equipment that the village could use should disaster strike.

Post-disaster response planning proceeded from community-based risk assessment. In flood-prone Mapulog (Naawan), this was aided by the construction of the three-dimensional map of the village that allowed residents to better apprehend the geohazards and plan for community efforts at preventing deaths and injury. The map rationalized the need to relocate certain houses and choose the vegetation and tree species that would ideally be planted in specific reforestation sites.

A little ahead in the preparation stage is the Kolambugan village of San Roque that takes pride in the way it has generated its EWER plan. Ever so often, San Roque conducts community-wide drills participated in by residents of all ages. These drills enhance the residents’ readiness for the real thing, should it happen any time.

DRRM planning in these communities merits the participation of women who generally make sure that the required household evacuation kits are prepared. Of note also is the responsible role requested of the elderly to take – that of becoming the kuratong or the warning bell ringer. Leonardo Cabigquez, the kuratong at Mapulog Creek in Naawan is in his seventies. Over in San Roque, Kolambugan, the bell ringer is in his eighties. The residents said the choice of the elderly to be the kuratong is logical as they have more experience at weathering dire circumstances and because they do not need much sleep. They are often awake and vigilant at times when the rest of the community would be asleep.

Over time, the needs of post-disaster communities change. In the case of Payao, it was some months before the special attention required by preschoolers’ protracted stress symptomalogy was apprehended. While it may have been brought first to the attention of an NGO, the implementation of an appropriate response to it called for inter-agency convergence that was spearheaded by no less than the provincial government of Zamboanga Sibugay. In delivering the holistic intervention through the barangay daycare centers, this program pulled in the efforts of the government social workers, the barangay officials, and the children’s parents.

The need to capacitate Typhoon Sendong survivors in Iligan City for basic life support skills was only realized months later by the survivors themselves when confronted with exorbitant medical bills and ensuing health difficulties from injuries sustained during the flood. The community training was undertaken through the coordination of various agencies that converged to capacitate the villagers to deliver first aid for storm surge injuries until proper medical attention would be available.

(Wayward and Fanciful is Gail Ilagan’s column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Gail heads the Center of Psychological Extension and Research Services at the Ateneo de Davao University, where she is also the editor of the university’s journal, Tambara. For comments, email her at gail@mindanews.com.)