A Question Of Poverty And Vulnerability

by Benjie Oliveros

Learning from the impact of typhoon Ondoy, which hit the country hard two years ago, President Benigno Aquino III, upon assuming the presidency, sacked the chief of Pagasa, the country’s weather bureau, and declared a “zero casualty policy” in the government’s response to natural calamities. When relatively mild storms hit the country successively, Malacañang gloated over the “success” of its “zero casualty policy.” However, when typhoon Pedring hit the country September 27, Malacañang had to eat its words.

Typhoon Pedring had claimed the lives of 35 people (as of September 29), half of them children, injured 25 others and 33 are still missing. Now, Malacañang is singing a different tune.

“Kahit may paghahanda po tayo, meron at meron pong nangyayaring ganito. Ang pwede pong gawin ng pamahalaan ay siguraduhin hanggang sa aming makakaya yung kasiguruhan ng mga taong madadaanan o maapektuhan po ng ganitong kalamidad,” Deputy Presidential Spokesperson Abigail Valte was quoted in an ABS-CBN news report as saying.

Valte was also quoted in a news report of Inquirer.net explaining that the Aquino government did not fall short in its response and did not fail in its “zero casualty policy”: “There are those who ask us why ‘zero casualty’ is often the policy of the Aquino government… This is really what we call force majeure. Even if there are preparations, there really would be [casualties].”

Well, there is no such thing as a successful “zero casualty policy” with casualties. So is Malacañang now eating its words when it proclaimed that it could achieve a “zero casualty policy”?

Typhoon Pedring exposed the folly of the “zero casualty policy.” Why Malacañang came out with it, in the first place, is hard to understand. It reflects either the failure of Malacañang to grasp the impact of natural calamities and how and why it affects people or it merely tried to come out with a sound bite or a rash declaration, which went awry.

For one, its “zero casualty policy” is based merely on an early warning system: If Pagasa is able to warn the government and the public early enough then local governments could prepare contingency plans before the typhoon hits the country hard and therefore, casualties could be prevented.

That is a very naive assumption.

The media, on the other hand, tends to blame the people by the slant of their stories. It is wont to blame people who refuse to leave their homes and belongings for being recalcitrance in the face of danger.

Typhoons hit the country every year without fail. Thus, it is really mind boggling why we still have a lot of casualties every year.

An early warning system and the disaster preparedness of local governments are only part of the solution. It still would not prevent casualties. For one, the budget of local governments for dealing with calamities is still too meager. Look at how they parade rubber boats that rarely number more than 10. Corruption is also a factor. Where do all these flood control funds go to? Why is it that local governments and national line agencies always seem to rush cleaning and dredging drainages, canals, and rivers only when storms are about to hit the country?

Second, peoples and communities should also be organized and primed for disaster preparedness. Raising their awareness on the need for disaster preparedness, and enabling them to plan and carry out disaster preparedness, as well as adaptation and mitigation, measures would ensure better compliance.

However, at the root of the problem is poverty. Poverty is the single biggest factor that puts peoples and communities at risk during natural calamities. It is the source of their vulnerabilities to disasters. Why do people insist on living in danger zones such as river banks, under bridges, and at the slope of mountains? Because they have no other choice. Why do they refuse to leave their meager belongings? Because losing these would push them deeper into poverty.

The problem is that the programs of the government fail to address poverty and the people’s vulnerabilities effectively. Relocation sites in cities are too far from sources of livelihood. There are no jobs, land to till, and other gainful sources of livelihood in the provinces. Jobs are scarce and the few that are available pay meager wages. Thus, people could not afford to live in safe and secure environments.

The Aquino government’s centerpiece poverty alleviation program the conditional cash transfer or Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program does not provide a lasting solution to the problems of joblessness and low income. And it even provides more incentives to family beneficiaries to stay where there are so as to continue receiving the cash dole outs.

Nobody wants to live in danger zones if they had the choice. Nobody wants to risk their lives guarding their belongings if they feel it would be secure or, if not, they could recoup their losses in a short time.

Some, including those in the media, believe that typhoons and other natural calamities are great equalizers as it affects all of us. But for the privileged few, it is a mere inconvenience; for some, it is a temporary loss; but for the majority, it is a matter of life and death. (Bulatlat.com)

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