Local Science for Large Disasters

The earth produces a reliable stream of disasters. Some, like AIDS, are chronic; others, like earthquakes or hurricane Katrina, are sudden displays of natural force. In each case, it is expected that a well-financed relief effort will descend from a wealthier region. But importing assistance may not only be less effective; it might actually cause more damage in the long run.

When a tsunami hits, the first impulse is to bring in First-World experts. Rescue is the initial priority, followed by ensuring food, shelter, and medical aid. It is just a matter of getting things done, and it must be done the most effective way, so the operations occur according to the institutional philosophies of donor countries.

But siphoning the habits of one culture into another during a rebuilding process can trigger societal changes that are almost as damaging as the disaster itself, as happened in a small fishing villages in the Philippines in the late 1970’s.

In 1978, Typhoon Rita wiped out the fleet of handmade wooden fishing boats in a group of sea-dependant Philippine communities. Relief was fast and effective, consisting first of subsistence aid, followed by “restoration” of the fishing fleet. The old boats, which rotted every few years, were replaced by modern fiberglass versions with small gasoline engines. At the time, this was touted as a textbook case of doing things right.