Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Typhoons and Hazards, Risk and Society: Act of God or Act of Man?

Philippine military, a critical partner in relief operations

Philippine military, a critical partner in relief operations

Two typhoons in two weeks have made searching, recovering, and burying the bodies of over 600 people killed, missing, and presumed dead as well as providing relief goods, evacuation sites, and services to half of Luzon Island in the Philippines unenviable tasks. Typhoon Ondoy’s rainfall and the flooding it caused were the worst according to PAGASA (Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration). Floods of up to 20 feet damaged public and private property, as well as crops and incurred lost revenue. All these cost an estimated PhP15 billion. Metro Manila and 25 other provinces were placed under a state of calamity. Typhoon Parma/Pepang followed after interacting with Typhoon Melchor and slammed into northern Luzon last week causing extensive landslides, mudslides, flooding, and bridge destruction in many provinces. Hundreds were killed and extensive areas isolated.

A week after Typhoon Ondoy, Napindan, Tauguig was still flooded

A week after Typhoon Ondoy, Napindan, Tauguig was still flooded

Eighteen years ago in 1991, an estimated 5,000 people died because of mudslides, landslides, and flashfloods. In the past fifteen years, more than 4,000 been killed, over 7,000, and at least three million people rendered homeless by typhoons. Damage to private and public property and crops have soared to at least PhP70 Billion.

Of the 11 worst typhoons to hit the Philippines since 1946, seven of them have occurred in the last 25 years during the period 1984-2009. The 2009 Pacific Typhoon season is considered one of the worst in decades.

The government says it was nature that caused it- too much rain, consecutive typhoons. The newsreels and photos show otherwise. In past calamities, legally and illegally cut logs rampaged down bare mountain slopes demolishing homes, farmland, roads, and even bridges. Today, mushrooming housing subdivisions have encroached into ecologically critical wetlands or watershed areas.

The years after Marcos was overthrown was a politically tense with right-wing military rebels staging failed coup de t’ats. On the environmental front, debates on environmental conservation, protection, and rehabilitation (E-CPR) were likewise intense, specifically whether the Philippines should adopt a total or selective logging ban. Academics, forestry specialists, environmental activists, politicians, and government officials all mobilized to support one or the other side of the argument. Nearly two dozen years later the debate still rages on. Various logging ban bills, including those filed as long as 20 years ago, have languished in Congressional committees by design and neglect. In the meantime, the human, environmental, and property toll rises as 20-25 typhoons visit the Philippines yearly to exacerbate an already degraded and fragile environment.

Shanty and dumpsite in a wetland

Shanty in a wetland

Back then and up to today at times, my framework for explaining all these was the historical and socio-economic-political structure of Philippine society. Development and social justice were difficult to achieve because of the asymmetrical power distribution within socio-economic and political classes nationwide. The argument remains valid, but after so many years, the argument has acquired a taken-for-granted and reductionist perspective. Logging companies have moved out. There is a partial log ban in some areas. Rebels, secessionists, and lost commands have entered into unholy alliances with illegal loggers. Migration has increased not only to urban areas but into the uplands as well. With a nationwide 2.3% annual population growth rate, population movement into hazardous areas complicates the search for sustainable environmental and development strategies.

In these days of hazards, man-made or natural, understanding risks in its various dimensions vis-à-vis a societal context can provide a nuanced understanding of what is happening. Societal problems have decidedly political origins, but there are also system issues in organizational and institutional settings. While politics plays a significant part in these settings, recognizing and then understanding how parts of a system or institution are coupled and interact with one another in ways that are both expected and unexpected, as the sociologist Charles Perrow emphasized, is a very important perspective.

Because the concept of risk is pervasive in daily life and public discourse, leaders need to understand why the present western, industrialized societies, including those in developing countries, are considered risk societies.

Risk is commonly thought of as a potential threat or harm. Its etymology is either from the Arabic word risq (good fortune or wealth acquisition) or the Latin word risco, the term used by sailors entering unchartered, dangerous waters. Risk pervades everyday life. Awareness of and heightened interest on the concept and nature of risk are evident in various discourses in many disciplines as well as in the public and private sectors.

Accounting for a risk society is necessary because the industrialized world of the 20th century, especially its latter half, has been characterized as a century of significant and rapid socio-economic change, flux, and uncertainty. Perrow notes that a risk society basically is a preoccupation of individuals, groups, and organizations in the private and public sectors with the various risks posed by daily life within a highly coupled and interactive capitalist system. Sociologists and anthropologists have observed that transformations of political, economic, social, and even cultural institutions have had profound impacts on individual, familial, and societal concerns, i.e. changing employment patterns, gender roles, shake up of family relations and social identities, redefinition of class boundaries, rise of states, immigration, environmental issues, and so on.

The effects of globalization have yet to be fully understood as the world entered the 21st century. Nine years into the new century, geopolitics and security issues have taken center stage along with environmental degradation.

Modern society has an organizational base to it. In order for organizations to survive, it needs to be effective. Organizational effectiveness means accomplishing two objectives, namely, continued access to resources and meeting the needs and demands of multiple constituents or stakeholders. It is in the various ways of meeting these two objectives that risk and hazards arise for various parties, be they first, second, third, or fourth party “stakeholders”. Over time, changes to the organizational field or environment are brought about by transformations of political, economic, social, and even cultural institutions that have profound impacts on individual, familial, organizational, and societal concerns.

These issues of economic and social-political flux, multiculturalism, explosion of information and communication flows, environmental hazards, and security/ military concerns recognize no geopolitical, class or socio-cultural boundaries and are not easily resolved. What is significant and is especially true in the Philippines is that institutions established to provide safety nets to citizens, i.e. public policy, economic regulation, industrial relations, insurance and social security, industry, food and drug oversight agencies, media, etc., have been found wanting and maladaptive to rapidly changing conditions. As the past two weeks has shown, the government and politicians’ response have been wanting if not absent. Even its media attempts of showing government relief efforts have been rendered inept and politically opportunistic.

Media, communication and information technologies have made feasible public access to information and resources on economic, political environmental, public health, and etc. issues; which have heightened, public interest, concern, and knowledge of contentious and risk issues. With floods reaching second floor ceiling levels and cars sinking into floods, it seems that Filipinos are left to their own devices and the heroism of fellow Filipinos. In this instance, it is media that has been the source of disaster information and by extension, relief efforts management. As Luis Teodoro wrote, “in these corrupt times, credibility is everything.”

Coupled with the individuation of information and communication flows is the increasing intrusion of the market logic in organizational fields that were once not directly influenced by it. This is seen in efforts to privatize as much as possible government services such as military logistics handling, national capacity building, and possibly even social security services. In the United States, for example, radical tax reform is also being pushed to support this privatization effort, the creation of an “ownership society”, and commodification of all possible transactional relations. Non-profit organizations engaged in various social movements are expected to be even more sophisticated as they incorporate a market logic to their operations.

On the other hand, the pervasiveness of the market logic has a counterpoint to it. The development of a moral economy social movement is burgeoning in response to globalization, workplace anomie, homogenizing pressures, abuses by industry and big business, environmental degradation, etc. Different sectors of society are engaging in what the sociologist Ulrich Beck (1992) labels the “third way” of direct politics.

Although the concept of risk has a long historical development, the risk society perspective is generally attributed to German sociologist Ulrich Beck’s landmark book Risk and Society. Beck’s theses are: (a) The nature of risk has mutated over time, from one that was natural hazards-focused, to that of man-made or manufactured risks, some having catastrophic potential, (b) Industrialized nations have entered a risk society in which institutions previously established to address risks fail to do so causing systemic crises of confidence and accountability; and, (c) A risk society amplifies these uncertainties, with risk-regulating institutions being rendered ineffectual by public cynicism. Individuals are left to fend for themselves, determining what is risky, how risky, and how to address these risks. Thus, the phenomenon is individualized and called risk modernization. In effect, risk becomes even more socially constructed, both on individual and societal levels.

Many criticize Beck for not providing empirical data, his preoccupation with environmental risks (the “bads”) to the exclusion of other types of risk, his call to go beyond Marxist historical materialism and class conflicts, universalizing of risk, negation of “positive” risks, and absence of cross-cultural comparisons, among others. Nevertheless, his thesis has engendered public risk consciousness and concern with man-made risks, discussion on the individualization of risk, heightened scrutiny of risk-regulating institutions, and mobilized political action.

A risk society is one that has or is becoming conscious of: (a) the need to determine the extent of interdependence, coupling, and interactiveness of these further evolving economic, political, social, and cultural systems, (b) the power, legitimacy, and urgency attributes of these systems, and, (c) whether or not and how relevant stakeholders will mobilize to address specific risks. Managers who appreciate the sociocultural dimensions of risk as discussed above are in a position to better identify, comprehend, and attend to the issues of power, legitimacy, urgency, and mobilization in relation to stakeholders and within the context of a changing social, cultural, political, economic and legal landscape.

Understanding risk in its many dimensions inevitably leads to an assessment of power relationships on individual and systemic levels according to Perrow. Modern manufactured risks are both visible and non-visible, especially for the physics, chemistry, and biological-genetic fields, and are primarily based on industrial overproduction. Economic activities concerned with maximizing profit and resource use tend to take more production and operations risks. Significantly, these man-made risks are temporally distributed across society, where in some cases, parties that do not have a direct influence on the proponent-firm carry the largest risk, i.e. border communities being asked to recycle industrial wastes or in the Philippine case, residential villages in hazardous areas.

Stakeholders are not static entities doomed to fear, inaction, and extreme skepticism of risk-regulating institutions. Researchers, in contrast to Beck and Giddens, have noted that risk management has agency. By agency, individuals and groups seek information and knowledge about the current situation and risks. They then act on these risks based on information gathered from family, friends, colleagues, media, the Web, and a multitude other sources. People and communities display resilience in the face of risks, hazards, and “normal accidents”, accidents which are inevitable because of the operation’s tight coupling, high interactiveness, and little room for flexibility.

Beck normatively calls for “subpolitics” or direct, individual action from below to address both global and local (the “glocal”) issues, by-passing discredited representative and responsible institutions, to eventually shape society. The struggle against genetically modified (GM) food, the mad cow (BSE) disease crisis, nuclear and biological weapons, the problems of the nuclear industry, the war of terrorism, the efforts on global warming and others show agency on the part of various stakeholders on “glocal” issues, which originate from business and industry.

What does this mean for the Philippines?

The typhoons and the responses of the individuals and institutions were revealing. Government and politicians, including presidentiables, were exposed as to their incompetence, ineptness, unpreparedness, and callous politicking in what the PCIJ wrote as the politics of relief. In contrast, civil society has stepped up and sought to fill in the gap of government. The exception is the Philippine military. Gawad Kalinga for example, distributed over 200,000 food packs in 10 days of relief work. Over 6,000 volunteers helped them. GK’s Gawad Kalusugan or health program team also conducted medical missions. Three important aspects surface from GK’s relief effort.

6,000 food bags and 15 military trucks to Taytay, Rizal

6,000 food bags and 15 military trucks to Taytay, Rizal

First is that GK had on the ground information from its 400 villages in Metro Manila. Through text messages, phone calls, and even social networking sites such as Facebook, timely and critical information was transmitted. This enabled GK to organize and tailor-fit relief efforts.

Second, GK beneficiaries in these villages, because of their social transformation, community empowerment and solidarity, and relative safety of their homes, were able to be the first on-the-ground rescue and relief volunteers. GK’s Tony Meloto writes of numerous and first stories of heroism by GK beneficiaries, now heroes.

Third, GK was able to effectively mass mobilize individual and institutional volunteers. Six thousand registered volunteers and scores of unregistered ones, dozens of corporations, and donors from abroad enabled GK to collect and repack the over 200,000 food packs. Andok’s Sandy Javier alone donated 90,000 chicken eggs and was bowled over by the organizational efficiency of GK’s relief efforts. GK’s Tony Meloto recounted that 50 homes in a plush Ayala village opened their kitchens and commenced food preparations for typhoon victims. “Walang Iwanan” (No is left behind) became a rallying cry of GK volunteers and supporters who felt they needed to mobilize when government help was inadequate or too slow.

Gawad Kalinga and the military partner up to help Ondoy victims

Gawad Kalinga and the military partner up to help Ondoy victims

The power and potential of GK’s emphasis on community-based development and organizing has borne fruit amidst some of the crumbling institutions of Philippine society.

Importantly, GK was able to coordinate and act in unison with the Philippine military. All branches of the military provided the necessary security and trucks to brave both the floodwaters and sea of humanity desperate for food, water, medical help, clothing, and encouragement. GK penetrated areas in Rizal, Pasig, Marikina, and Taguig that were inaccessible and dangerous because of the Philippine military.

I think that the Philippine military’s partnership with civil society, notably Gawad Kalinga, Red Cross, and ABS-CBN, among others has restored to a significant degree its credibility and reliability. The soldiers were strong, patient, and disciplined. They not only lent an air of security to the numerous relief volunteers, but including those who needed help.

With regards to the environmental situation in the Philippines, a few weeks prior to the typhoons, Manila hosted the Asian ministerial meetings on climate change that resulted in the Manila Declaration. What was clear from that conference attended by over 600 participants was that the effects of climate change do not recognize borders or social class. Depressingly, while the industrialized world caused much of the global warming, it is the developing world, including the Philippines, which will reap the consequences. Further, Asia is being forced to leapfrog into a cleaner production AND address the poverty gap at the same time, which no country has done on a massive scale. It will take the best brains and the shared resources between rich and poor countries to achieve this.

Third, who will suffer indicates vulnerability. Who is vulnerable in this age of risk and hazards? While the typhoons showed that rich and poor were affected, it is still the poor that are the most vulnerable. They have neither the resources nor network to avoid hazardous areas, access timely and relevant information, and after the disaster has struck, rebuild and move on. Poverty is not only the lack of resources; it is the lack of options and choices. They suffer from the quadruple whammy of poverty, social inequity, poor governance, and the external shocks of environmental degradation and calamities. They are caught between their flooded shanty and a rampaging swollen river, with only their wits and determination to survive guiding them.

Choose your boat

Choose your boat

The great ship that is Metro Manila is leaking. The leaks are caused by unsustainable urbanization patterns of a fast population growth rate, environmental degradation, unequal power and income, lack of access to suitable and unaffordable housing, lack of fair wages and employment opportunities.

Disasters of a calamitous nature have a social underbelly.

The question is how will you act?

Walang Iwanan. Ano ang taya mo?

Walang Iwanan! Ano ang Taya Mo?

Walang Iwanan! Ano ang Taya Mo?