HomeCommentaryLab Notes | El Niño 2024: another disaster, another government failure

Lab Notes | El Niño 2024: another disaster, another government failure

The current crisis affecting our agriculture sector caused by the 2024 El Niño phenomenon should no longer come as a surprise. When PAGASA issued an advisory as early as July last year, Marcos Jr. waited about half a year before issuing Executive Order 53 as a response. He delegated a number of bureaucrats to supposedly oversee preparations as the El Niño task force, even putting up a website specifically for this.

But yet again, here we are in the midst of another disaster, with 82,994 families, or 408,135 individuals, already affected, and 16 municipalities declaring a state of calamity, according to NDRRMC. Instead of concrete solutions, for instance, cutting off the water supply to golf courses, we get inane suggestions from the El Niño task force, such as urging people not to flush their toilets every time they use them. The country needs a holistic response from the El Niño task force and not suggestions that in the end pass the responsibilities to the people.

El Niño is not a fairly new concept in the Philippines as it has been introduced to the public since the late 1990s, but as a reminder of what it is here’s a quick read. The typical effect on our side of the world of this unusual warming of the ocean waters in the eastern Pacific Ocean is less rainfall than expected. For a country with a predominantly agricultural base, and where many of the rural population rely on subsistence farming and are dependent on landlord-farmer land relations, less rain will have disastrous consequences for many Filipinos. And that is what has happened to date, government agencies report over PhP1B worth of agricultural damages across the country. That means little to no income and hunger for many families that depend on agriculture as their main source of livelihood.

A useful framework to understand why El Niño is affecting the country and different sectors is through the lens of disasters. The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction defines disasters as:

“A serious disruption of the functioning of a community or a society at any scale due to hazardous events interacting with conditions of exposure, vulnerability and capacity, leading to one or more of the following: human, material, economic and environmental losses and impacts.”

In our case, serious disruptions to the functioning of many communities have happened because of droughts and dry spells, and have resulted in massive economic losses and, more importantly, caused suffering and misery to many communities. Since disasters always include human components, there is nothing natural about it. Therefore, there is no such thing as a “natural” disaster; there was a human failure somewhere in how social, economic, and political systems were set up.

Additionally, we can categorize disasters as slow-onset disasters: those that “[emerge] gradually over time. [It] could be associated with, e.g., drought, desertification, sea-level rise, epidemic disease. [emphasis mine]” This is important because many government disaster risk reduction policies are set up to respond to sudden onset disasters, such as those from earthquakes, typhoons, etc. Responses need to be appropriate for a particular event. For instance, responses to outbreaks and pandemics need to be framed from a medical and public health framework, and not from a security and military perspective. Effects can lead to even more suffering because of such policy failure, as what the Duterte administration did during the COVID-19 pandemic. This militaristic response was also experienced when a number of volunteers investigating the effects of El Niño in areas in Quezon province were held at a checkpoint.

As a slow-onset disaster, the effects of El Niño materialized gradually through a number of months. As such, there should have been ample time for the government to mobilize resources and prepare communities and the agriculture sector for the effects of dry spells and drought. The fact that reports are coming in from different areas of dried-up farms and fishponds, and of affected farmers and workers not getting enough, if any at all, assistance from the government, only means that whatever measures the Marcos Jr. administration put in place have failed miserably, again.

- Newsletter -

To understand how we got to where we are right now, we need to be able to ask critical questions. A disaster risk reduction framework we can use is the Disaster Crunch Model. The diagram below helps visualize the interplay of factors that contribute to an increase in disaster risk.

We can use the progression of vulnerability as a way to map out what factors need to be addressed in order to proceed to identify pathways towards the progression of safety, illustrated below, to what can be hoped as a condition with reduced disaster risks.

In the case of the ongoing 2024 El Niño disaster, we know that a hazard directly related to that phenomenon is drought, and pathways to mitigate it are through timely and place-specific forecasts and information. Communities need to interrogate the quality of information they get from government science agencies. Is this information readily accessible and guided by open data policies? Are these understandable? Is the information practical, useful, and actionable? Or are those too generalized and crafted in a language more designed to cover up accountability? Because we know that there are inherent limitations and uncertainties to the science and mathematics of modeling natural processes, it becomes incumbent for science institutions to be more transparent and forthcoming with their science. They also need to be more open to collaborating not only with fellow Filipino scientists but with communities as well, not just foreigners. To prepare for disasters, we need the best science and technology available to us. But how can we produce this if our science institutions are walled off, their scientists working in separate silos, blinded by the deliberate misinterpretation of the word “mandate?” Scientists, practitioners, advocates, and stakeholders should be able to freely share data and information through open data and open science policies, unhampered by Kafkaesque bureaucracy.

Identifying unsafe conditions, dynamic pressures and root causes and resolutions need to be specific to places and communities. For example, to address unsafe conditions due to precarious conditions of local agricultural economies, KMP had presented suggestions to the NIA on what they need to do, such as “effective use and management of water resources, restoration of irrigation systems at the construction of climate-resilient irrigation systems and facilities,” seed subsidies, and use of drought-tolerant varieties developed by local farmer-scientists. This vulnerability is exacerbated by dynamic pressures such as the lack of education and literacy which could have facilitated access to scientific knowledge products and information that can help improve their productivity. One of the root causes is the lack of a genuine land reform program by the government, which has resulted in generations of landless farmers bound to semi-feudal relations with their landlords, unable to break the cycle of poverty. Socioeconomic status is a main barrier to education and science; if you can’t afford it, then you can’t get it. Frustratingly, there is no indication that the Marcos Jr administration is taking concrete steps to directly address any of these issues. Instead, they are using this disaster to justify environmentally destructive and development aggression projects such as the Kaliwa Dam which will always be the convenient policy response without holistic consideration of our country’s increasing vulnerability to climate change.

Organizing and mobilizing for disaster preparedness is an inherently political activity because more often than not, individual households will not have the capacity to comprehensively prepare for most disasters. Access to resources will usually require political apparatuses to be mobilized, such as disaster risk reduction offices run by government units. Moreover, since hazard events, whether natural or man-made, usually affect a broader geographical and social landscape than individual households, a collective community approach supported by government resources is what makes sense. We must resist the individualization of disaster risk reduction efforts, which is rooted in neoliberal thought and part of a much broader pattern of defunding and deallocating government resources for social welfare and development. As a result, when disasters present themselves, they become a convenient excuse to justify state policies that do not move the needle for a resilient community but rather for the entry of destructive development projects hiding behind the label of “green” projects.

Our society is built on inequitable economic and political systems that favor resource allocation to privileged social classes and those in power. Underprivileged and marginalized sectors such as peasants and workers cannot rely on government apparatuses to willingly allocate enough resources to provide for their needs. These include basic services such as health, education, livelihood, and other economic opportunities, factors that we know can alleviate unsafe conditions, reduce pressures, and address root causes of high disaster risks. Therefore, there is no other recourse but to participate in organized collective mobilizations to assert and demand that the government provide these basic services. There is a space for scientists to be part of this community-led response to disasters that our country experiences.

Scientists play a critical role in helping reduce and mitigate the effects of disasters. Knowledge products like maps and forecasts can be used by communities to prepare for events like the El Niño phenomenon. Often, communities will already have traditional and indigenous knowledge systems that they can use, and scientific knowledge can help augment that so they will know what resources they need to mobilize from within their communities and from the government. Understanding the nature of a phenomenon can allow us to craft specific mitigation and response measures appropriate to each locality. For instance, preparations for a drought may be different in places on or near mountains where they are nearer to watersheds than in coastal areas or plains where the main source of freshwater could be groundwater. Hand-in-hand, the material experience of those from different regions that experience varying degrees of the impact of El Niño in their communities will work best when used as the basis of the analysis of scientists. This breaks the existence of the ivory tower, especially of bureaucrats, that imprisons those in authority or with capacity in a theoretical analysis deplete of material grounding.

But in order to do this, we need an economic and political system that will empower the women and men who continue to work hard and struggle to create a science that will genuinely serve the people, not one that allows some individual bureaucrat-scientists to treat science institutions as their own fiefdoms. The current system entitles them to brazenly spout ludicrous claims, such as that “data should only be given to vetted organizations or entities that have the technical expertise to handle the information properly.” This stranglehold on knowledge production is inextricably linked to limited access to emancipatory education; it is what enforces and maintains this status quo. What these wannabe-feudal lords want are subservient subjects, those who are disempowered and cannot freely express critical ideas and challenge inequitable power structures. This is not surprising.

Philippine science institutions have served the ruling classes ever since Spanish colonial occupation, continued through American colonization, and have retained that colonial affinity until now. It will take drastic measures from collective and militant action from progressive forces within and outside science and technology institutions to root out these people and dismantle this backward colonial thinking. In doing so, our response to disasters will be anchored on putting the communities and Filipinos at the center of policies and not the interest of the few. Disasters will not be an afterthought or just another line of words in the news cycle or in our history books that is accepted as a force majeure, rather, it is addressed by the whole gamut of government response that aims to mitigate the impact on our communities. If this is at the heart of state policies, only then will Philippine science and technology progress and move forward to truly serve the people.#

Narod Eco is a freelance researcher working on understanding disasters and disaster risk through the intersecting lens of geosciences, community development, social sciences, decolonization, and conservation. He is a member of AGHAM – Advocates of Science and Technology for the People.

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