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Typhoons are NOT disasters

Updated: Sep 29, 2021

These thoughts surfaced shortly after Super Typhoon Ulysses (Vamco) descended upon large swathes of the Philippines, causing tremendous loss of home, livelihood, and public spaces, despair and grief. I was frustrated upon seeing posts and comments that evoked resignation to disaster. Many of these posts promoted a view of disasters as "natural" events that cannot be avoided.

This perspective is so damaging to our most vulnerable who lose everything when disaster strikes. Disasters CAN be prevented. That is the first lesson we teach our students at our Master of Disaster Design and Development programme at RMIT, and the first lesson both practitioners and citizens must learn about disaster management: Disasters are, first and foremost, political phenomena and their prevention and mitigation are therefore within the remit of human agency.

Image 1. The post-typhoon ruins of a house in Leyte, Philippines. Image credit: Oliver Salva


Typhoons are NOT disasters.

Typhoons are hazards.

Hazards become disasters when they collide with a wide range of vulnerabilities that reduce our shared capacity to overcome impact: low quality infrastructure, lack of decent housing and green spaces, underfunded hospitals and schools, lack of urban planning, lack of job security, lack of rule of law, etc.

Hazards frequently become disasters when they are met by poor governance and leadership. The term "natural disaster" is a misnomer because disasters are ultimately the work of humans.

We desperately need leaders who are compassionate, competent, accountable, and just humans. Who understand that every poorly built bridge, every unschooled child, every illegally cut tree, every underfunded livelihood program, every murdered environmentalist, form our collective vulnerability to hazards.

We need leaders who believe in science, diversity, and inclusion, and who know that surmounting and preventing disasters cannot be bracketed from questions of justice, prosperity, peace, and democracy.

We need leaders who know that hazards beyond our imagination are on the horizon and that preventing disasters means swift and overarching systemic change for the better.

We need leaders who know what the difference between thriving and surviving means for our most vulnerable -between lives worth living and merely "waterproof" lives.

Some food for thought as we surmount our 21st typhoon of the year and inch closer to 2022.

- PGC 13 November 2020


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