Thursday, June 24, 2021

Editorial: Counting disaster’s toll

WE forget how swiftly some things can change. Two brothers stood on a wooden footbridge, watching their neighbors try to catch a snake, while the river beneath them surged after the rain. When the bridge collapsed, the currents swept the boys faster than anyone could reach them. They will always be eight and nine.

Within 12 hours, another disaster struck in a different part of Cebu City. An 11-year-old boy was watching a TV show with his grandfather on that Friday night when some boulders and dirt, loosened by hours of rain, fell on their home. His grandfather survived. The boy didn’t.

Unlike their families, we will probably forget about them soon. In the most disaster-prone region of the world, there have been too many like them. And there will be others like them, unless we change faster.

In the last four decades, the number of people at risk of suffering from floods went up from 29.5 to 63.8 million. The number of people living in areas vulnerable to cyclones also went up, from 71.8 million to 120.7 million. There was no figure for those killed by rain-triggered landslides. But the number of those vulnerable to them is expected to rise, as growth in Asia-Pacific’s urban communities and the lack of affordable homes keep nudging more people to live in hazardous zones, like riverbanks and slopes.

“Unless sustained efforts are pursued and corresponding investments made, urban growth will continue to increase disaster exposure,” said the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) in 2012, when it released the “Reducing Vulnerability and Exposure to Disasters” report.

Before we beat ourselves up, it bears repeating that the Philippines has shown some success. We are one of the countries where “targeted social protection,” like labor-intensive public works programs and cash transfer programs in times of crisis, have helped. “But they still remain greatly underutilized,” the UNISDR report said.

Another area where the Philippines has taken strides is in the use of satellite images to assess impending hazards. What communities need to do is keep checking how well local governments use that information to improve early warning systems and land use planning, among other interventions. For change to happen, we all need to play our parts in making disaster risk reduction a priority, for as long as it needs to be.

That means we’ll need to remember how some changes are worth fighting for, whatever the weather, when it’s so easy to forget our more vulnerable citizens. Some things that need to change can get mired in frustrating, fatal delays.
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