Back in 2009, a massive bushfire raged through much of the state of Victoria in Australia, killing 173 people following record high temperatures in the state. It was the highest peace time civilian death toll from a single disaster in Australian history. At the time, the state Integrated Emergency Coordination Centre (IECC) applied a “stay or go” policy of advising residents of areas found to be under threat of bushfire. This policy delegated the decision to either evacuate or stay and defend one’s home to individual households. The policy was founded on the empirical claim, researched by Dr Katherine Haynes of the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre, that concluded that survival was more likely for people to be actively fighting the fire at home than passively shelter or evacuate to be stuck on the roads.
In contrast, the state of California in the United States (also frequently ravaged by bushfires) applies a compulsory evacuation policy when foreseen disaster conditions are imminent. Robert Manne, Professor and Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at La Trobe University and one of the survivors of the 2009 Victorian fire wrote shortly after that “the stay-or-go policy was unique to Australia.”
The policy began with one of the clichés of the era of neo-liberalism: mutual obligation. Citizens did not passively accept government services. They formed a partnership with government, in this case in the common struggle against bushfires. For the citizens who decided to stay to defend their homes, there were very specific obligations. They needed to prepare their properties carefully, in particular to remove combustible vegetation and to have protective clothing, pumps and generators ready and handy. The people who were to stay and fight were told that in case of fire, houses offer fundamental protection. When the fire front hit, they should shelter from the radiant heat. As soon as the fire front passed, they should go outside to extinguish the embers. As one of Jack Rush’s associates, Rachel Doyle, pointed out, the policy was captured in a saying which had even appeared in official literature: “Houses protect people and people protect houses.” In some of the official literature it was even claimed that people were at least temporarily safe even in houses that were actually on fire.
A significant chunk of the death toll in in the aftermath of the devastation wrought by Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) on the Philippines in 2013 was accounted for by people who also chose to ignore evacuation warnings and stay to defend their homes. Indeed, people most at risk in the event of natural disaster may benefit from stronger central government in the event of crises than be left to work out the best course of action for themselves. During big disasters of the magnitudes thus far described, national governments are usually the only entities that possess the resources to evaluate situations on a macro scale…
The Philippines’ disaster preparation and relief capacities are also hampered by political factors. It lacks a strong central government and provincial governors have virtual autonomy in dealing with local problems.
Contrast this with Vietnam, which sees about a dozen typhoons per year and is similarly poor and densely populated.
But in Vietnam a centralised, Communist Party-led government broadcasts clear messages that cannot be ignored by the provinces.
The idea that strong central government better mitigates national crises, however, is premised on said government being competent enough to step up to that leadership role. In the case of the Autralian government response following the 2009 bushfires, even relatively well-organised bureaucracies could fail whenever “black swan” disasters strike… “From the evidence collected at the royal commission, the cumbersome new bureaucratic machine, the IECC, seems to have operated like an army without a general, where no one thought it their responsibility to take the lead,” observed Manne. In the Philippines, CNN’s Anderson Cooper reporting from the ground in the early days after Yolanda left, observed that there was “no one in charge”.
A key difference between the Australian and Philippine cases lies in the scale of disaster risk. The victims of the 2009 bushfire in Victoria, Australia consisted mainly of a minority profile — small communities of Australians to whom living near or even within densely-forested areas is a lifestyle choice. In contrast, people who live along coastal areas that are at risk of flash flooding and storm surges comprise a significant part of the Philippines’ impoverished majority. Considering that the risk of death from a catastrophic disaster is more the rule than the exception in the Philippines, the role a strong government plays is vastly more critical there.
And yet, it has come to light, that even as vast sums of money and resources came pouring in to aid the relief effort, the astounding inefficiency of the Philippine bureaucracy was all but fatal so much so as to bring to serious question the recovery prospects of Tacloban City and other affected areas observes Kevin H.R. Villanueva, a university research scholar in international politics and human rights at the University of Leeds…
The money pledges and relief supplies of food and water worldwide have been heartening. And yet they were, until recently, stuck in Manila, or in the case of cash donations, much has prudently been held in banks until plans for reconstruction come to light. Driven by the images of despair and desperation, people have themselves made haste to come to the aid of the survivors of Yolanda.
The argument to be made here is that there has been no single point person to whom accountability for immediate relief and the eventual task of rebuilding has been bestowed. The Filipino people will survive because it is in their character to counter and rise above adversity. But if we are all to genuinely learn and understand the lessons of this disaster, the question must be given a future perfect thought: Who will be in charge, if Tacloban and its people are to rise from the rubble?
Columnist Amando Doronila warns that the only reason donor countries have been generous following the Yolanda disaster is “because the Philippine calamity was an extraordinary once in a lifetime event that required massive assistance to enable this country to recover from the havoc wrought on its economy by the typhoon and rescue its teeming poor from going deeper into poverty.” But wealthy countries have long been suffering from “donor fatigue” as evidence mounts that the absorptive capacity of many chronically-impoverished Third World countries are simply not up to scratch even when enjoying access to abundant development funds. Doronila writes further…
As international aid commitments flowed in, it was not clear how the government can handle these inputs and whether its bureaucratic machinery has the absorptive capacity to deliver these assets to the devastated regions, for which there are now bottlenecks blocking their speedy distribution.
All what we can hear about the capacity of the government to clear the choke points in the distribution system is an appeal from the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) for greater patience and public understanding amid persistent complaints about the slow provisions of relief to typhoon survivors
Relief items donated by civic groups and business organizations are bottled up in the DSWD for repacking for redistribution—a process in which the department has been allegedly relabeling the goods as a largesse from government.
The DSWD is reported to be embroiled with the Department of National Defense over who is in charge of relief distribution following the slow response of the military in providing immediate assistance in communications, and facilities and transport of basic relief goods and services.
It is indeed a tragedy of monumental proportions that so much good intention all routinely go to waste in wretchedly imporverished nations like the Philippines. Indeed, we could emphasize “routinely” because wasted opportunity and resources forms pretty much the core plot of Philippine history. As I wrote in the past, The Philippines is one big SQUANDERED foreign investment.
America presided over Philippine history’s biggest and most intensive foreign investment sprees, one that lasted over most of the first half of the 20th Century. Over that period, the “free” world’s favourite system of government was established, as was a world-class public education system, deep water ports, the country’s “summer capital,” a vast naval and military air base, a long-distance train line, and a new national language that was well on its way to becoming the lingua franca of science and technology. Manila had a plan that stretched all the way out to the mosquito-infested swamps that were still to become “Metro Manila.” The city also had a really nice electric car system for public transport. It was, at the time, the jewel of the Pacific.
What America left the Philippines in 1946 is, collectively, the mother of all foreign investments.
Manila was, of course, bombed to smithereens during “Liberation.” But so was much of the industrial heartlands of Japan and Germany. Let’s not even go into much detail over what South Korea had to work with as recently as the 1950s. Or Vietnam, for that matter in the 1970s. Indeed, despite Manila flattened beyond recognition in 1945, the Philippines still reigned as the pin-up girl (often literally) of Western-style prosperity over much of the 1950s. For a while, it looked like Filipinos were running gracefully for the goal carrying in their arms the result of a brilliant forward pass. And then the renowned Filipino Condition set in. And the rest is history — Philippine history over the last 60 years, that is.
Given the Philippines’ extensive track record of failure to deliver some semblance of decent return on the world’s vast investments in its development, it becomes hard to remain optimistic about the recovery prospects of the areas destroyed by Yolanda. Already, there are questions as to what will happen to the tens of thousands of refugees being shipped to Metro Manila. Chances are, many of them will add to the vast squatter colonies that already infest the coastal areas and waterway banks of the teeming megalopolis, further taxing already meagre resources, further infuriating honest taxpayers, and further fattening the Philippines’ portfolio of disasters-waiting-to-happen.
Indeed, experts have recommended altogether abandoning any effort to rebuild Tacloban City unless a different approach can be found to rehabilitate the lives of its victims…
Many climate change and disaster preparedness experts say that rebuilding the 78-square-mile town of 220,000, where hundreds were killed by the storm, is a grave mistake.
Rebuilding “needs to be done urgently and differently for the Philippines,” Vinod Thomas, director general for independent evaluation at the Asian Development Bank, told Quartz. “There is clearly a big lesson to be learned in not relocating in a highly vulnerable area,” he said. “Tacloban is like a poster child. You can’t imagine a more vulnerable area than Tacloban.”
As the eminent physicist Albert Einstein was said to have said:
A problem cannot be solved using the same thinking that created it.
[NB: Parts of this article were lifted from the Wikipedia.org article “2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission” in a manner compliant to the terms stipulated in the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License that governs usage of content made available in this site. Photo of relief goods distribution courtesy Inquirer.net.]
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