The Interface of Disaster and Conflict in the Philippines - Blueboard by Jennifer Santiago Oreta (with Andres Winston C. Oreta)

November 05, 2019

Last October, a series of strong earthquakes hit Central Mindanao (Region XI, Region XII and BARMM), killing and injuring people, displacing thousands of residents, and damaging and/or destroying thousands of structures. According to the group Save the Children, more than 3 million school-aged children were affected, with more than 180 classrooms completely destroyed. Kidapawan City, Davao, Cotabato are among the areas that are reported to have incurred major damages in infrastructures.
Having multiple layers of vulnerabilities is an unfortunate reality of the Philippines, being one of the most hazard-prone & disaster-hit countries in the world.  Given its topography and geographical location, it is confronted with various types of natural hazards-- earthquakes and volcanic eruptions especially in mountainous areas; storm surge and possible tsunami in shoreline areas; typhoons during the monsoon season.  In congested urban areas, torrential rains can create damaging floods.  Each of these natural hazard that may result to disasters requires a different set of responses - from relief and immediate assistance, to recovery, rehabilitation, and resilience phase.
Disasters are defined as “serious disruption of the functioning of a community or a society causing widespread human, material, economic or environmental losses which exceed the ability of the affected community or society to cope using its own resources.” (UNDP) Disasters due to natural hazards are given realities of a country’s topography and hence cannot be avoided; human-induced disasters, however, can be mitigated. Human-induced disasters are caused by or instigated by the actions of people.  This includes the victimization of communities by armed groups; it also includes the poor response or outright failure of institutions to address the immediate and long-term needs of displaced communities, as well as the failure of political leaders to anticipate and plan for appropriate and timely response to disasters. 
Given the constancy of  disasters triggered by natural hazards in the Philippines, damage to properties, agriculture, infrastructures, are realities that local and national governments have to confront every fiscal year. As a developing state where institutions of governance and development remains fragile, the impact of natural disasters are compounded exponentially.  
An additional complication to the already challenging situation of hazard-prone areas is the presence of armed rebel groups in geographically isolated and depressed areas (GIDA). In the recent earthquakes in Mindanao, the areas hit are the same areas whose economic development have been stunted by armed conflict.  This is not an isolated case - the Overseas Development Institute’s Humanitarian Policy Group (ODI/HPG) states that “between 1999 and 2004 at least 140 disasters happened in contexts that were also experiencing (armed) conflict.”
Armed conflict affects not just the economic development of the local community but also the absorptive capacity of the local government in managing multiple problems at the same time, and consequently the swiftness and effectiveness of its response mechanisms to these challenges.  Human-induced disasters compound the already challenging situations of vulnerable communities, and divides the attention of the local government in effectively addressing the disaster at hand.
For instance, the lack of access road and infrastructures in some conflict-affected areas of Mindanao leave communities in relative isolation.  This becomes a major problem when natural disaster strikes. In the case of the recent earthquakes, relief assistance had to utilize helicopters in some (mountainous) areas due to the lack of, or poor access road going to the communities.  Relief operation, therefore, in conflict-affected areas require addition effort, logistics and costs, compounding the already strained resources of the local government. 
Moreover, private-public partnership that are critical in establishing normalcy after a disaster and in establishing long term community resilience are also affected.   Given the experience with typhoon Pablo (2012) and Yolanda (2013) where the New People’s Army (NPA) and some of its supporters took advantage of the vulnerability of the situation, the Armed Forces of the Philippines, as Martial Law administrator in Mindanao, issued Martial Law Instruction No. 02, directing the setting up of check points in Davao del Sur and North Cotabato to “control and screen the ingress and egress of people in evacuation centers to ensure that only legitimate  and authorized relief workers are granted access to the evacuation center, and receive relief goods and supplies for distribution to the evacuees.” This move is understandable and even justifiable in a situation of armed conflict and terrorism, but it may be disastrous in the aftermath of natural calamity where the immediacy and adequacy of response –  which requires greater public-private partnership – are necessary.
The overlap of disaster and armed conflict also compound gender-related vulnerabilities and violence. During evacuation and displacement, women are the ones left to sustain their family and community. They are likewise more vulnerable to sexual predation and violence in evacuation center – anecdotes of human trafficking, for instance, are common during situations of disasters.  There is significant difference on the access to information and control of women and men vis a vis social, economic and political resources.
Disaster and conflict is a pressing issue, but few studies and literature are written about it especially in the Philippine context.  Natural disaster and armed conflict, in fact, are generally treated as separate issues and hence, policies and operational guidelines are separate and disjointed.  The policy and operational interface of these two issues are severely lacking.  Operational units that manage and handle these problems are treated as separate silos, and hence unified, rational and cohesive accountability lines and coordination mechanisms among the various task forces and council are also lacking.
Treating issues as compartmentalized and specialized instead of cohesive and integrated create challenges (and even problems) in coordination between and among national agencies; and between national agencies and local government units (LGU).  It also tends to create solutions are too focused and myopic that may even cause new problems in other areas.
While principles and general guidelines can be set on the national level, operational responses should be tailor-fitted to the contour of the area, as well as the capability of the local government mechanisms.  It is necessary therefore for the national government to lead in harmonizing the policies, programs and national response mechanisms.
A synchronized response, and unified strategic communication plan are sorely needed. To effectively address disasters, whether natural or human-induced, the following checklist by the UN-ISDR in Making Cities Resilient, is recommended: 

  1. There is strong leadership, coordination and responsibilities in disaster risk management.
  2. The city is up-to-date on knowledge about hazards.
  3. There is an adequate financial plan that complements and promotes mechanisms to support resilience activities.
  4. Urban planning is carried out based on up-to-date risk information with a focus on the most vulnerable groups.
  5. Natural ecosystems within and around the city’s territory are identified, protected and monitored to sustain and safeguard their protective functions as natural buffers.
  6. All institutions relevant to a city’s resilience are strengthened to have the capabilities they need to execute their roles.
  7. The social connectedness and culture of mutual help are strengthened through community, education, and multi-media channels of communication.
  8. There is a strategy to protect, update and maintain critical infrastructure to ensure that services continue and to increase resilience against hazards and the impacts of climate change.
  9. Effective disaster response is ensured by creating and regularly updating preparedness plans, connecting to early warning systems and increasing emergency and management capacities through public preparedness drills.
  10. Post-disaster recovery, rehabilitation, and reconstruction strategies are aligned with long term planning and provide an improved city environment after disaster events.

Jennifer Santiago Oreta is the Director of the Ateneo Initiative on South East Asian Studies, and an Asst. Professor of the Dept. of Political Science of the Ateneo de Manila University.
Andres Winston C. Oreta is a Professor of Civil Engineering of De la Salle University.