Q&A on ‘mega disasters’: who lives? 

My 2 cents: 

Question: There may be constraints that hinder considerations for investments in structural and non-structural measures. Cities that have not been able to prepare themselves for the effects of extreme weather have suffered severe disruption that will take decades to overcome. No action means the expected costs to cities will be high. The cost of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans and other affected areas in the United States was estimated at USD 100 billion. In Manila (Philippines), Bangkok (Thailand) and Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam), costs to repair damage from climate change-related flooding are likely to be substantial, ranging from 2 to 6 per cent of regional GDP; a 1-in-30 year flood in Manila could cost between USD 900 million and USD 1.5 billion with the current flood control infrastructure. What would be the essential elements to facilitate investments in the measures concerned?

Answer: Investments in structural and non-structural measures remain ideal, particularly in developing countries. The reality has not changed: government resources alone cannot address the consequences of disasters. Albeit prostituted a concept, public-private partnership is key. But moving forward requires the big DRM pie to be divided into slices — we need to know: (1) what are the “soft” and “hard” components of what needs to be done; (2) where expertise and resources could be sourced; (3) which sectors could be tapped to take lead roles; and (4) what available mechanisms are there to mobilize community action and support.

It is obvious that when a disaster strikes, everyone is affected. While a factory might have been spared from damage, its immediate market and source of labor are affected. Farm-to-market roads and bridges become impassable, affecting supply chain. And, to a certain extent, production may suffer as a result of factors that influence productivity (low morale, psycho-emotional distress) of its affected personnel. This scenario can be a good selling point of government in tapping into the resources (CSR, corporate governance, marketing, etc.) of the private sector towards a “community disaster fund”, which terms of utilization/administration can be drawn up by the sectors involved.

Government may also consider both incentive mechanisms and “disaster fees” in the processing of business, building and related permits. The incentives can come in the form of tax cuts for donations made towards disaster-resiliency of its external environment (on top of what it is undertaking internally). “Disaster fees” (or however it would be named), on the other hand, represent a certain percentage of total transaction paid by the requesting party towards a common “community disaster fund”. These are on the assumption that the private sector benefits more in terms of use of basic infrastructure, and is based on the concept of equity.

QUESTION: What’s the extent of buy-in notably DRM for catastrophic events especially those of low probability? How do you perceive the state of awareness and understanding of complex disaster scenarios, specifically mega disasters, among the stakeholders, including the academia, the corporate sector, and the public?

Answer: Low-probability catastrophic events are able to generate a strong visualization of what a disaster, or the domino effect of one, is in the minds of the public. In the Philippines, when high-magnitude earthquakes are experienced, what comes to mind is the GEJE. Mental images of the 2011 tsunami in Japan have seemingly become an automatic household warning in coastal communities to vacate when a strong earthquake strikes.

But while low-probability disasters create a clearer picture of the need to be prepared, the buy-in for DRM aimed at addressing them is two-faced: high yet short-term. And the scenario becomes worse among those who are not direct victims. After the GEJE, Asian countries looked into their DRM plans, did their own simulations to assess their level of preparedness for a similar disaster. Correspondingly plans were tweaked, some resources were poured into upgrading relief and rescue equipment, and related IEC materials were visible. A few months after, when media slowly moved away from their coverage of the effects of the GEJE, momentum to localize DRM also wore off. Efforts seemed stopgap. And because probability of recurrence is low, government shelved initiatives that had been started and focused on “more pressing concerns”.

Interesting can be gaps in the awareness and understanding of complex disaster scenarios among stakeholders:

Public awareness and understanding of complex disaster scenarios, specifically mega disasters, is peripheral. Traditional beliefs and culture-based resistance still prevail on an alarming majority. Others settle for survival mode, leaving their lives to fate. And there is lack of access to digestible information that can easily be cascaded to the more vulnerable members of the community.

Schools have started to integrate DRM into the curriculum, and student groups are taking active involvement in related advocacy campaigns. In terms of comprehensive support, the academe is a rich source of expertise, with the academic community composed of scientists, development practitioners, political and legal minds, and community mobilizers. Indeed, there’s a wealth of knowledge resource in the academe that can be said to be untapped. Yet while it is a dynamic community in itself, not everyone understands mega disasters in the same way. Understanding tends to be disciplinal.

Private sector awareness of mega disasters is quite self-centered. Efforts focus on how to protect investments from the effects of a disaster, putting in place safety nets that minimize impact on production, physical plant, and personnel complement. But their understanding of mega disasters is limited to their own operational cycle. Hardly attention is given to capacitate the community that hosts them for disaster preparedness and recovery. An integrated CSR approach can be utilized by the private sector to maximize its relevance and reach.

QUESTION: Despite our experience with disasters in our home ground and awareness of the impact of Hurricane Katrina (New Orleans), the Queensland (Australia) floods, Bangkok floods, and 2011 GEJE, are we still geared to deal only with disasters regularly anticipated but not prepare for mega disasters? How can we address this situation if there remains widespread denial of possibility of mega disasters?

Answer: The growing number of occurrences, increasing intensity and unusual unpredictability of “normal” disasters seemingly create a false notion of preparedness for a mega disaster. Because the public has gotten used to disasters throughout the year, there is already a self-assurance of resilience. This stems from that fact that every after a disaster, they make refinements to their homes and they’ve still managed to survive. The need to prepare for a mega disaster is still compelling to them, but the absence of political will to get things done confuses prioritization.

Maybe it’s also because of how mega disasters are packaged, how they are marketed as high-impact but rare occurrences? The general sense could be, since mega disasters repeat themselves over decades, the probability of them also experiencing the same within their lifetime could be close to none. Also, psychologically, the public would naturally cling on to denial, especially if they’re left with nothing else, as a coping mechanism/form of survival.

It is the absence of a document that unifies concepts and DRM plans under the umbrella topic of “mega disasters” that also nurtures denial — which can sometimes be symptomatic of deficiency. A regional approach can be used to address this widespread denial. Asian countries can group together and develop a regional strategic plan. A multilateral agreement can be made surrounding the nature and deployment of support, with a commitment to pass a similar local legislation. Advice can be sought from regional experts on pre- and post-scenarios, and estimates and recommendations can be consolidated for both regional and local application.

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