Friday, August 01, 2014

Risking Resources, Reckoning Risk: The 2014 UP TWSC Public Lecture Series on Natural Disasters

Risking Resources, Reckoning Risk

Launch of the 2014 UP TWSC Public Lecture Series on Natural Disasters

I. Rationale

The Philippines is increasingly known, among other things, as the “world’s most disaster-hit country” and parallel to the surge in the occurrence and magnitude of natural disasters has been the clarion call for accountability: who can we turn to in a time of unprecedented risks? When one of the world’s most powerful storms made landfall in central Philippines, just weeks after a 7.2 magnitude earthquake hit an even bigger expanse of the same region, headlines of pork barrel scams did little to comfort the public of the miniscule funds left for disaster relief. Calamity-stricken residents have begun begging on the streets for food and women were reportedly forced into prostitution to fend for their families. In the midst of the scandal and the rubble emerges what seems to be the one saving grace: the unique Pinoy trait of resiliency sung in societal chorus, that “the Filipino spirit is waterproof and unbreakable.” Attempts to recover from the systemic loss of life and property—“Tabang Na” shirts, run for a cause events, including the adaptation of the charity anthem “We are the World”—served to invigorate the downtrodden Pinoys. We are survivors, not victims. Indeed, in the face of unprecedented risks, never has “Pinoy pride” been beamed more brightly. Such rhetoric suffuses the reality of magnified vulnerabilities in the country, lest it moves down several notches in the Happiness Index. The Pinoy smile in the face of adversities that gained world-wide admiration, remain plastered on our faces, immortalized in the good vibes Pinoy adaptation of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy.” Yet eight months after the Bohol earthquake and typhoon Yolanda struck central Philippines, the disaster-stricken areas—apparently unable to catch up with the rhetoric that was cast only too soon---languish in their recovery and rehabilitation. Portraits of Filipino communities run counter to metaphors of pride and imagined invincibility—“mga basang-sisiw” in soiled tent cities, drenched in their losses and lost causes. In the aftermath of large-scale disasters, the good-natured incantations grow louder as if to drown out the wailing of those in mourning, the clatter of pots and pans emptied of hope. What is more, Pinoy pride deflates when set against actual figures for disaster relief. The calamity fund, the primary resource for disaster relief, shares less than one percent of the national budget. Resources allocated consistently pale in comparison with the extent of damage to life and property caused by natural disasters. The calamity fund for 2014 has been set to P13 billion despite the P24 billion estimate of the damage caused by Typhoon Yolanda alone. Thus, in close scrutiny incantations of pride and resilience function in some ways as crutches—more appropriately stilts wobbling in the damage and debris.

In this view, the risk from natural disasters have revealed how Filipinos have been equipped with resources that are contingent at best—where given the corruption controversies of disaster relief, spaces can be opened up for other modes of recourse, and oppressive at worst—where resiliency has become a self-imposed burden of responsibility and accountability among Filipinos. How Pinoy pride has been fomented by societal institutions, can be described, in the words of sociologist Ulrich Beck as a form of “narrated attention”—where the parlance of resiliency ultimately detracts from, rather than allow for, a critical stance towards the zeitgeist of our time. Living in a time of unprecedented risks, can Filipinos find other practical and meaningful modes of recourse, aside from the bipolarity of disaster relief corruption and feel-good incantation?

The 2014 UP TWSC public lecture series aims to broaden the scope of what Ulrich Beck referred to as "narrated attention" on risk from natural disasters and serve as a platform for the various forms of resources, what can be inferred to as knowledge practices on the Philippine encounters of natural disasters. The public lecture series, following sociologist Piet Strydom, posits risk to be not simply as an “objective problem” that can be addressed by scientific and technical knowledge and bureaucratic and administrative processes. The contemporary phenomenon of risk can be considered as “a new discursive culture of perception, communication and collective attempts to identify, define and resolve an unprecedented problem turned into a public and political issue.” How collectivities and institutions creatively generate and strategically utilize symbolic and material resources for different ends, unwittingly blurring the line between the protection and loss of life and property, compels us to rethink resources that have been taken for granted, simply taken at face value, remain untapped, or simply forgotten. In a time when risk looms as the currency and its mediations the product put forward on the pretext of trust and accountability, there is a need to reflect on how these create, maintain, and transform knowledge practices, in anticipation of more frequent and stronger disaster threats. Risks from natural disasters served to encourage interiorization of the unique Pinoy trait of resiliency—a mode of self-regulation made manifest in Pinoy pride among Filipinos. However, the precarious present does not privilege specific forms of knowledge, as averred by risk theorists; but in fact invokes disparate and divergent rationality claims. The public lecture series thus aims to serve as a dais for what social scientists posit as “contradictory certainties” without privileging one discipline over the other but possibly towards their potential alignment to meaningfully reflect upon the precariousness we, as a country, are confronted with.

The public lecture series presents speakers from a multidisciplinarity of approaches in exploring attendant, taken for granted, and perhaps untapped knowledge practices arguably constitutive of the Philippine encounters of natural disasters: 1) mass media and the science of natural disasters, 2) local knowledges and sense-making of natural disasters, 3) crowdsourcing in the new media and natural disasters 4) policy and practice in post-disaster governance, and 5) history and legacy of natural disasters. Broadly, it asks the following questions: What is the role of the mass media in the intrinsic relationship of science communication and natural disasters? How do local knowledge practices inform the public’s practices and beliefs during natural disasters? With the Philippines recently tagged as “the world’s most sociable online race,” how does this impact on the country’s precarious status as “the world’s most disaster-hit country”? How does the Philippine government grapple with the requisite flexibilities and improvisations in a time of unprecedented risks? Finally, how does heritage function not solely as a physical penchant for the past but as a reminder of the staggering toll that natural disasters inflict on our history and identity? In broadening the discussion on how symbolic and material resources are paired up with unprecedented risks, there arises both the opportunity and the means for shared accountability in a country with limited resources and increasing vulnerability, where the government, as principal duty bearer, has chosen to merely scrimp and beg just to be able to secure its constituents.

II. Lectures

When Typhoon Yolanda struck central Philippines, the public was steered in all directions in a tangle of terminologies. In the aftermath, government agencies had great difficulties defending their accurate forecasts over the lack of a clear explanation the public can understand. As a sign of admission, the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA), the country’s weather agency, was quoted saying “more could have been done in explaining to the public the magnitude and gravity of a storm surge.” Malacañang was also quoted saying “perhaps [the government] could've communicated the danger better….“[we could've said] tsunami-like effect.” Be they warnings of a “storm surge” or a “tsunami,” the institutions the public turns to during natural disasters, it seemed, failed to reach out to an already wary and confused public. Accusations were hurled: If the people in Samar and Leyte have been warned against a tsunami, more lives would probably have been saved. The issue on semantics is not negligible, especially in times of natural disasters—when words in fact do save lives, as averred by one advocacy group on disaster risk management in the country. The surge in scale and occurrence of unprecedented risk from natural disasters points to the increasing importance of science communication, an emergent domain in the study and practice of development communication in the country. Science communication in the Philippines, according to former Dean of University of the Philippines Los Baños College of Development Communication Dr. Maria Celeste H. Cadiz, proceeds from the communication of scientific and technical information to a “cognizant…cultural process.” In describing the phenomena of natural disasters, science communication or the process of making science concepts popular and more comprehensible to various people through different media is gradually gaining currency and this is where the mass media comes to the fore as purveyor of eye-witness accounts. This is indicative of the Department of Science and Technology’s vision for science journalism in the country: “to popularize science through mass media and identify ways to bridge the communication gap between the scientists and the public.” The Center for Community Journalism and Development in the Philippines, however, reveals a still inchoate field of science communication in the country, particularly among the mass media: “low awareness and understanding of disaster risk and climate change concepts, plans, policies, programs and in some cases, even basic learning points such as definition of terms“ are some of the factors that prevent the media from practicing an effective science communication of natural disasters. A quick Google search on the key words typhoon Yolanda would generate reports that mostly focus on casualties, destruction of properties, and foreign aid or donations. There are minimal reports on the science of the disaster and on why and how such disasters occur. How can we intimate an effective science communication of natural disasters in the country? What is the role of the mass media in the intrinsic relationship of science communication and natural disasters? How does the Philippine mass media situate itself as an active player in science communication as the country continues to be beset by natural disasters?

  1. What is science communication? What is the role of the mass media in the intrinsic relationship of science communication and natural disasters?
  2. How does the mass media situate itself as an active player in science communication and in reporting climate risks in particular? What is the current state of science journalism in the Philippines? Is there reluctance that science reporting will not sell to the public?
  3. How can we describe the relations and dynamics of science communication among scientists, journalists, and the public in the Philippines?
  4. How should "effective science communication" be conceptualized? Is it about increased public awareness? Or should it also aim for public engagement in disaster risk reduction and management? What ethical aspects should be considered by a science journalist?  
  5. Is there such a thing as Filipino science communication or do we just adopt "international standards"? How do we factor in cultural context/specificities? What is the future of climate risk reporting in the Philippines?

The Filipinos are a people not unfamiliar with natural disasters. Typhoons, landslides, floods, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions have all been part of a history—mostly unwritten—that has informed traditional knowledge on disasters. Concepts such as "masamang kutob" and "pangitain" are used to make sense of natural disasters that abruptly waste lives, lands, and livelihoods. However, lamentably sparse are local scholarly scrutiny on these and similar concepts and practices that Filipinos use to explain the suddenness and the large extent of devastation that natural disasters leave in their wake. This may be in part attributable to the banality of traditional knowledge in a contemporary reality defined by its faith in the infallibility of science and technology and in its god of Progress. For superstitions—"sabi ng mga matatanda"—are seen as remnants of a primitive and dark past, populated by an ignorant and irrational people. A study on religion, disaster, and colonial power pointed out that folk bent on the supernatural during Spanish colonial rule has been perpetuated and successfully utilized by colonial authorities as instruments of control—as divine punishment for non-Christian practices or as seal of divine approval of colonial rule when inflicted on “enemies,” i.e., Moros. On the other hand, disaster anthropologists have alluded to traditional knowledge as "warning signs" that people make use of to temper the potentially devastating effects of disasters. Foreign media featured an anthropologist’s claim that Indian aboriginal tribes’ oral traditions and folklore have kept their communities safe after the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami in 2004. Anthropology and disaster research, for over three decades, have consistently underscored the community as disaster research's basic unit of analysis: "theories about disasters are inherently theories about communities, that is community continuity and change.” As anthropologists account for how disruption, brought about by disasters, are dealt with by communities, “outsiders” such as the government and international aid agencies also affect a traditional community’s social fabric. Some have done more harm than good—upsetting, even further marginalizing, “indigenous resilience systems” that have been developed over generations. Other scholars, however, were not too keen on the so-called increasing vulnerability of indigenous communities and argued that cultural change in traditional societies is coping. A case in point is when one anthropological study in northern Philippines demonstrated that regularly experienced disasters actually normalize coping and are integrated into people’s everyday lives. Is there any recognition of the value of traditional knowledge practices’ possible contributions to making sense of how societies perceive and cope with natural disasters? How have traditional knowledge practices served as a form of warning system against natural disasters? How do traditional knowledge practices inform the public’s practices and beliefs?

1.     How do traditional communities cope as a collective? In what ways is the social fabric of a community rent and reworked during and after a disaster?
2.     How do Filipinos affected by natural disasters come to terms with what has happened? What beliefs usually act as crutches in disaster aftermaths? How do traditional knowledge practices inform the public’s practices and beliefs?
3.     How valuable has traditional knowledge been in providing ample warning of natural disasters? How do people reconcile such knowledge with warnings issued by state and media machineries? Is it possible to clear a middle ground between traditional knowledge and science communication? What has been the appreciation of aid efforts—both local and international and governmental and nongovernmental—to people's traditional practices of coping with the effects of disasters?
4.     What is the current state of local scholarship dealing with how Filipinos make sense of and cope with natural disasters? How supportive have academic institutions, government bodies, and international nongovernmental groups been to such efforts? Is there any recognition of the value of its possible contributions to making sense of how societies perceive and cope with natural disasters?

New media has been hailed as the “ultimate game changer” for natural disasters. Declared as having made possible “a real first for humanitarian response in the 21st century,” the new media, spanning social networking sites, Web 2.0 platforms, and mobile applications, have been the “go-to tools” in mapping out real-time information during natural disasters. They provide a bird’s eye view on the unravelling of the disaster, directing help to where it is needed in unprecedented fashion. The new media owes its success to a time when “access to information is as important as access to food and shelter,” as once argued by National Geographic Explorer Patrick Meier. In the Philippines, Typhoon Pablo witnessed new media’s crisis mapping capabilities, when the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) activated the Digital Humanitarian Network, a network of solutions teams that monitored over tens of thousands of tweets in a span of ten hours during the typhoon. From the “curated tweets,” the team produced a metadata containing information on media type (photo or video), the type of damage, analysis of the damage, GPS coordinates, date, as well as links to other media types. The database was created and shared with OCHA Philippines in less than 24 hours. The solutions teams attributed this to the rich “social media footprint” of Filipinos and a similar grassroots “information-sharing” dynamics was seen more recently during Typhoon Yolanda. While Facebook made possible a “donate button” in its newsfeeds and Google launched “Person Finder,” netizens streamlined the use of hashtags in Twitter for efficient online coordination of relief efforts offline—and success stories have been remarkable. A Filipina doctor, who posted a call for help during Typhoon Yolanda in a social networking website, received donations amounting to £30,000 in less than 24 hours. There seems to be no dispute to what the country can gain from what the new media makes possible in terms of disaster prevention and relief. Yet the new media also has its share of flak—”slacktivism,” where political engagement has been limited to a click of a button arguably reducing its merit; “trolling,” where racist comments have proliferated in the wake of natural disasters in an attempt to pull down efforts to rise above the disaster; as well as “information overload,” where netizens become saturated and rewired only to absorb not more than 140 characters of information. The backlash is they end up relying on other people to act and leave it at that. The end result is a virtual community where netizens find themselves “alone, together” in its “collective action and shared responsibility.” With the Philippines tagged as “the world’s most disaster-hit country,” and recently “the world’s most sociable online race,” how does this impact on the country’s present precarity? Who are the amorphous mass of Filipino netizens and how much of their real-time actions wield power, if at all, before, during, and after natural disasters? How can we re-imagine Philippine encounters of natural disasters with the future of new media?

1.     What has been the role of new media on disaster prevention and relief in the Philippines? Some have characterized the new media as having revolutionized disaster response all over the world, but to what extent is it the ultimate game changer in disaster prevention and relief in a country with low internet penetration (35 percent of the total population)?
2.     With the Philippines recently tagged as “the world’s most sociable online race,” how does this impact on the country’s precarious status as “the world’s most disaster-hit country”?
3.     Who are the amorphous mass of Filipino netizens and how much of their real-time actions wield power, if at all, before, during, and after natural disasters?
4.     While the new media has been a leverage with which netizens have demonstrated responsibility as a call for accountability, how sustainable are these collective actions in the transitory cycle of news feeds?
5.     How can we re-imagine Philippines encounters of natural disasters with the future of new media?

If Republic Act No. 10121, the Philippine Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act, is indicative of the role of the pure and applied sciences in Philippine legislation, then the intersection of the scientific and legal domains in the Philippines can best be described as tangential. In 2010, RA 10121 superseded Presidential Decree No. 1566 as the controlling law on disaster preparedness, mitigation, response, and recovery in the Philippines. Among the new law's provisions are definitions of disaster, risk, and related terms, which had no antecedents in the previous law. Notably, most of these definitions are taken virtually wholesale from the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), which is hinted at—as the said source is not explicitly acknowledged—by section 2c of RA 10121: “[It shall be the policy of the state to Incorporate] internationally accepted principles of disaster risk management in the creation and implementation of national, regional and local sustainable development and poverty reduction strategies, policies, plans and budgets.” Even the Act’s short title reflects the state’s apparent desire to adhere to the current international discourse on disasters and risk. However, it seems that the legislators behind RA 10121 hardly went beyond designing a law that features the apropos buzzwords and is line with other post-1987 legislation. The Local Government Code of 1991 set five percent of estimated revenues from regular sources to serve as a local government unit’s (LGU) calamity fund. RA 10121 hardly alters this by stating that the said percentage is an LGU’s minimum “disaster risk reduction and management (DRRM) fund” allocation. If the law is truly in line with UNISDR’s definitions of disaster-related concepts—which highlight community specificity and grounded assessments—why does it still mandate what appear to be merely arbitrary allocations for DRRM funds? Why does it fail to order LGUs to empirically determine the basis for disaster preparedness expenses? One can only wonder what the LGUs affected by the twin catastrophes of 2013 would have done had they been forced to base disaster-related expenditures on the studies of people who utilized more robust and reliable indicators for disaster preparedness than hearsay and watered-down memory. In view of increasing unprecedented risks from natural disasters, and possibly the requisite flexibility in disaster policy and governance, it is imperative to give thought to what LGUs will do moving forward—will they pay more heed to the recommendations of disaster scientists and scholars or will they trust that they will always get by on the kindness of local and foreign donors and the resiliency of Filipinos?                
1.     In practice, have LGUs been utilizing the leeway given by the law to adjust their annual budget for disaster-related expenses? For example, since RA 10121 came into force, have typhoon-prone LGUs been allocating more than five percent of their estimated revenues from regular sources as DRRM funds?
2.     Given that RA 10121 and related issuances do not specify how disaster preparedness expenses should be determined—at best providing non-exhaustive lists of what such expenses could be—what bases have LGUs used for deciding, for example, that seemingly interminable disaster readiness workshops should be prioritized over the construction of sturdy evacuation centers?
3.     If grounded assessments for disaster preparedness purposes are not the norm, have LGUs relied more on improvisational means of dealing with the aftermath of disasters? How can this “new normal,” if at all, be described?
4.     Is heavy reliance on a community’s “inherent” capacity to adapt and be resilient in the face of, say, the destruction wrought by a catastrophic typhoon a sustainable practice or can we outline a new form of reflexivity among frontliners in the government during natural disasters?
5.     Moving forward, what can be done after the sunset review of the new law?

Catastrophic calamities devastate not only the tangible present but also the reminders of the fading past. When the heritage churches of Bohol, among the oldest in Asia, crumbled in the 2013 earthquake, many lamented the “national cultural treasures” having been reduced into rubble. The churches, according to the National Committee on Culture and the Arts (NCCA), “are artifacts of memory”—they “form ‘part of the soul of the community.’” Similarly, when Yolanda’s wrath felled the statue of Carlos P. Romulo, one of the seven bronze figures in the MacArthur Landing Memorial, in commemoration of a key event in America’s effort during the Second World War to retake the Philippines from Japanese occupation, the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) immediately set to work its restoration. MMDA chair Francis Tolentino averred that “By restoring this memorial, we hope to inspire the Leyte people to rise again. Like General MacArthur declared, we shall return." In the twin disasters of 2013, earthquakes tampered with topography and disrupted the surefooted rhythm of local lives as these break belfries of faith and bury to the ground a culture’s material achievements. Floods and storm surges drowned bodies and reshaped the margins of habitable earth as these submerged histories that anchor identities, inundated and broke the tenuous link between generations and its heritage. Calamities are fires of societal transformations that force the living to sift through and find value in the ashes of what’s left, divine the past from the soot marks, and devise new spaces of being and belonging from the razed ground. Spaces that both honor society’s loss and pain are the very same spaces that herald society’s unyielding quest for permanence and remembrance. Heritage needs not only be conserved but reclaimed. Histories need not only be taught but rewritten and retold. Songs and practices that perform the past in the present must be drawn again from memories of minds muddled by the trauma of disasters. Despite the country’s limited resources, heritage compelled the need to stand up to unprecedented risks and rebuild the tangible and the intangible, epitomized by “Task Force Heritage.” But between the hunger pangs of the survivors and the elite’s penchant to preserve their very own legacy, is there a formulary of prioritization to address in humane and timely manner the need of the body and the need of the soul? Is there a point and value in giving up and just letting nature take its course on the material legacies of the past?  

1.     If heritage is only one of the means of accessing the past, why privilege it over other ways, even in times of natural disasters? Or does seeing it the subject of sudden and irreversible devastation creates a sense of urgency that may not be totally justified? What are historical examples of such in the country?
2.     Given the increasing vulnerability of the country from unprecedented risks of natural disasters, has the government consistently looked out for the preservation of its “natural cultural treasures”?
3.     Should it always be government institutions that must bear the onus of securing heritage sites? Who are the other stakeholders at work, if any?
4.     Is there a point and value in giving up and just letting nature take its course on the material legacies of the past?  

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