The other day, a fire in London razed a residential tower and a landslide in Bangladesh destroyed several communities. Scores of fatalities were logged in both incidents, but with no final tally as of presstime.
In the first incident, a fire of unknown origin burned the 24-story Grenfell Tower, a building with 120 units that is part of the Lancaster West Estate, an inner-city social housing complex. Built in 1974, the building had been refurbished last year but the local Grenfell Action Group claimed it was a fire risk.
Torrential rains caused the landslide in Bangladesh, which buried some residents in their homes and claimed the lives of at least 107 people. Telecommunication links are down in most of the affected areas and heavy rains are hampering rescue operations.
These two disasters occurring close to each other in a tight timeframe bring to mind the issue of vulnerability and how different social classes experience risk and disaster in different ways.
Grenfell Tower was socialized housing; the local counterpart would be the Bliss buildings for low-income folk. Most of the landslide victims were from tribal communities in Rangamati, a remote hill district. If we look back at the history of disasters, both natural and manmade, we are likely to find that it is the people in the lower socio-economic strata who are both more vulnerable to risk and more affected by the effects of a disaster.
However, most approaches of vulnerability reduction strategies, says development scientist Bernard Manyena (2006), “are often orientated towards the creation of a human coping environment.
“Yet we have learned that people want more than simply to attain the minimum standards associated with coping, meaning that there is a need to adopt resilience thinking that goes beyond vulnerability reduction.”
Vulnerability reduction that focuses on risk assessments and negative reactions, Manyena says, is less effective than building local knowledge and augmenting existing capacity. This observation takes off from the definition of resilience by the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR):
“The capacity of a system, community, or society potentially exposed to hazards to adapt, by resisting or changing in order to reach and maintain an acceptable level of functioning and structure.
“This is determined by the degree to which the social system is capable of organizing itself to increase this capacity for learning from past disasters for better future protection and to improve risk reduction measures.”
“Local knowledge” or indigenous knowledge is based on the local culture and environment and on experience garnered by the people of a community over many years, even centuries. The concept also embraces “traditional technology” that often works when modern methods are inapplicable or inappropriate.
The local knowledge gained about the risks threatening residential areas often comes at a huge price and the cost of many lives, but will allow the communities to strengthen their capacities for resilience.
Filipinos well know this, having coped with many disasters stemming from typhoons. An example of a community learning from past disasters to improve risk reduction measures is Albay, which, under governor Joey Sarte Salceda, showed the rest of the country how efficiently and effectively disaster management can be conducted.
However, we must continually find ways to improve our disaster precautions and responses as well, in order to reduce the impact on those most vulnerable—those from lower-income groups.
If the risk is something unknown, everyone will potentially suffer, even the wealthy. But when the risk is something that can be reduced or eliminated by resources—for instance, having a well-built house in a safe location —this leaves the less fortunate to bear the worst brunt of disasters.
Meanwhile, as I wrap up this piece, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center shares news of a 7-magnitude earthquake striking off the coast of Mexico near Chiapas. The risk of disasters is one that we face daily, and we will never know when or where the next one will hit.
Dr. Ortuoste is a California-based writer. FB: Jenny Ortuoste, Twitter: @jennyortuoste, IG: @artuoste