Are ‘natural disasters’ natural? (1) | Inquirer Opinion
Kris-Crossing Mindanao

Are ‘natural disasters’ natural? (1)

/ 04:10 AM January 17, 2023

We think of natural disasters as manifestations of nature’s wrath. This speaks of our tendency to deflect the blame on nature for calamities that have ravaged our communities. We never reflect on how we have behaved—both individually and collectively—in dealing with nature.

Nature—our environment as a whole—is a gift to nurture our bodies as we navigate through life’s challenges on a daily basis. Yet we never think of it in this light. We think it is our right as the more superior creatures on this planet to cultivate or even exploit nature for what it can give us. But many times, we do it rapaciously, draining it of whatever it can provide us, almost to its breaking point. This crucial point in the life cycles of many elements of nature has led to disastrous consequences of flooding, long droughts, and eventual extinction of some species that have weaker adaptive capacities to extreme weather events or what is popularly now known as climate change.

These thoughts came to mind while reading about current daily realities in many parts of our country, especially in northern and central Mindanao which bore the brunt of recent typhoons and flooding.


The reality of extreme weather events is no longer far-fetched, as some regional officials used to think about two years ago, before the devastating consequences of Typhoon “Paeng” (Nalgae) that hit many parts of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) last October 2022.


Perhaps this is why the Philippine program of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations decided to gather regional government functionaries designated as disaster risk reduction and management (DRRM) officers last week here in General Santos City, from Jan. 10 to 13. I was invited to share with them the results of a just-completed exploratory study on climate fragility risks and their intersections with violent conflict. I took part in it as the cultural anthropologist/sociologist tasked to gather primary narrative data from four municipalities that are located within the country’s biggest wetland, the Ligawasan (marsh). (The word ‘ligawasan” is Magindanawn for marsh).

About two years earlier, when I started working on this research (funded by the United States Institute for Peace and led by Dr. Laurence Delina, an environmental science professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology), I interviewed a few key officials of the region about the effects of climate change. Among 10 people I had conversations with, half of them considered climate change as a reality that is “not yet felt seriously” in the BARMM, and is more experienced in highly urbanized areas in the country like Metro Manila. All these perceptions were proven wrong when Paeng struck. Many communities in the mainland areas of the region reeled from massive devastation, including the deaths of more than 50 individuals, with many still considered missing up to now. Some families who lost their loved ones in this “natural disaster” are still slowly coming to terms with this painful reality in their lives.

The study was exploratory in nature, but it was the first of its kind done in the low-lying communities of the region, which also happen to be some of the areas frequently affected by armed conflict, both in the past and in the present. During the martial law years under President Marcos Sr., there was a more vertical type of armed encounters between the forces of the state, military, and police, against the Moro National Liberation Front. Presently, the episodic armed violence in these areas within the Ligawasan (Datu Piang, Datu Salibo, Rajah Buayan, and Pagalungan) is attributed to violence courtesy of horizontal protagonists, families competing for local political power, or those involved in the culture of vengeance or “rido,” as it is popularly known. Land disputes are among the more serious and common reasons for rido there.

Our key findings pointed out that devastating effects of both violent conflict and extreme weather events have surfaced and exacerbated existing deficits and debilities in local governance, among them the lack of appropriately trained government functionaries heading local government DRRM offices.

(To be continued)

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