Fisherfolk definitions of 'hazard' and 'disaster': A workshop method

Updated: Sep 16, 2021

Today, we continued our participatory assessment for disaster risk reduction and management in Bulacan Province, specifically, in an estuarine island facing both marine and riverine hazards. The workshop process required to us to ask Barangay/village officers questions about local knowledge regarding disaster risk reduction. As the officers discussed the causes of sakuna (hazards) in their area, I noticed that there was a high level of disagreement in the group - and the workshop required consensus among the officers. I realised that the high level of disagreement was a result of the existence of several types of hazards in the area, and it was not clear which hazards they were referring to as they discussed local disaster knowledge.

To settle this disagreement, I quickly tore out a page from my notebook and divided it into strips. On each strip I wrote out the seven hazards the area that were identified through previous workshops with the officers:

BAGYO (typhoon)

HABAGAT (Southwest monsoon)

BASURA (garbage)


ASO AT DUMI (dogs and their feces)

ULAN (rain)

LUBOG (sinking island)

Image 1. Quick method to draw out local definitions of 'hazard' and 'disaster'

Image credit: Pamela Cajilig

I asked the officers to order these hazards from most damaging to least damaging: Typhoons were ranked first as these caused great destruction to livelihood and property, and local adaptation infrastructure have often been ineffective in keeping the community safe. Habagat/monsoon season came next, as the strong winds of habagat may cause fishing nets to break down and disappear in the ocean waves. Strong waves and flood may also make it unsafe for children to go to school. Last rank was 'lubog' or the reported sinking of the island. Only after the ranking did we ask about the causes of each hazard. Causes were divided into 'natural' (bagyo, habagat, high tide, lubog) and 'gawa ng tao' (made by humans).

Parsing out the various definitions of 'hazard' not only made it easier for us to gain consensus, it also transformed my own perceptions of which hazards inflicted the most damage to the island. Based on two initial trips to the island, I thought that high tide (which, every night, is about waist-deep in most neighbourhoods in the island) and lubog (given cost of raising one's house about flood level) would rank higher. However, the exercise taught me that high tide and lubog are everyday concerns, and classify more as 'problema' (problems) rather than 'kalamidad' (calamity). Local definitions of calamity largely relate to rapid-onset and spectacular disasters, such as typhoons and earthquakes.

Experiences of disasters are specific and are shaped by a number of things, including the geomorphologies of habitats. As a disaster risk reduction and management practitioner, it really pays to listen and free oneself of preconceived notions of how concepts are defined and how things work according to specific contexts.

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