Back to Forum

What’s natural in natural disasters?

‘Philippines Super Typhoon Rai death toll surges’[1] and ‘Malaysia: Death toll rises after massive floods’[2] were natural disaster-related headlines of the BBC in the final week of Advent in 2021. In the Philippines, at least 375 people were reported dead, another 500 injured and 56 others missing with rescue teams describing scenes of “complete carnage…that look like it has been bombed worse than World War Two”. In Malaysia (at the time of writing), at least 14 people have died and “tens of thousands” displaced with “an estimated 51,000 people had been evacuated from their homes”.

What’s natural about natural disasters in the above events? With regard to the Philippines that deals with “an average of 20 storms and typhoons… each year”, the resilience of this nation-state and its people are marked by a naturalised (read as seasoned) disaster relief efforts, e.g. thousands of military aircraft and naval vessels, coast guard and fire personnel are efficaciously deployed to worst-hit areas which includes decimated villages. Whereas in Malaysia, its Southeast Asian neighbour that is similarly subjected to year-end monsoon-driven floods (but not typhoons), the government’s natural (read as predictable) response was lackadaisical and consequently, ineffective. Evidenced by hashtag movements on social media, e.g. #RakyatJagaRakyat (citizens look out for each other, including migrant and refugee persons), #DaruratBanjir (Flood as national emergency), #KerajaanGagal (failed government). What has become natural (read commonplace) is the ‘unofficial’ response that compels the rakyat (citizens), a handful of Members of Parliament and corporate companies to rise to the occasion and literally, above unprecedented water levels in mobilising rescue (e.g. privately-owned rafts), donation and outreach missions (shelters, hot meals, baby milk, blankets, clothes, period care supplies) to worst-hit populations across several states. Even the Armed Forces naturally “sprang into action…helping evacuate flood victims to relief centres” when official directive from the National Disaster Management Agency (Nadma) was not forthcoming![3]

Flooding in Malaysia is natural in so far as it is predictable, in this instance, due to “tropical depression [low-pressure weather system, which is] forecasted days ahead”.[4] The lack of political will in not walking the talk where operationalising the 17 Sustainable Development Goals are concerned has exacerbated climate injustice that disproportionately affects so many. This includes governmental lack of accountability in managing deforestation and illegal logging impacted by uncontrolled development, lack of waste management, with poor infrastructure of cities that do not allow for good drainage of excessive rain leading to ineffective flood mitigation. What’s natural in natural disasters is also the climate literacy of all those, particularly ordinary folks who heeded “both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor[5] in reaching out to those made more vulnerable by the indifference of those in power and governance. Fundamentally, social justice is inextricably linked with climate justice. Cognizance of this does not come naturally and soon enough to our leaders.

[1] BBC (2021, December 21). Philippines Super Typhoon Rai death toll surges. BBC News. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-59714658.

[2] BBC (2021, December 22). Malaysia: Death toll rises after massive floods. BBC News. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-59723341.

[3] Sean Augustin (2021, December 21). Fed up of waiting, the military rolls into flood relief. Free Malaysia Today. Retrieved from https://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/nation/2021/12/21/fed-up-of-waiting-the-military-rolls-into-flood-relief/.

[4] Ida Lim (2021, December 22). Experts: Selangor floods show failure to prevent a repeat of Kelantan in 2014; Malaysia needs better warning systems. Malay Mail. Retrieved from https://www.malaymail.com/news/malaysia/2021/12/22/experts-selangor-floods-show-failure-to-prevent-a-repeat-of-kelantan-in-201/2030182.

[5] Pope Francis (2015). Encyclical letter Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis on care for our common home, paragraph 49. Retrieved from https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html.