[PHOTO FROM GOOGLE -Hard to imagine how people survive these calamities]

MANILA, AUGUST 16, 2012 (PHILSTAR) STAR SCIENCE By Joost R. Santos, Ph.D., Krista Danielle Yu, Kathleen B. Aviso, Ph.D. and Raymond R. - Systems perspective on disaster risk management.

In recent years, the world has witnessed many catastrophic natural and man-made disasters with dire consequences that have crippled the entire global society.

Notable examples include the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Fukushima earthquake of 2011 (which then triggered a nuclear plant meltdown) or the massive floods in Manila in 2009 and Bangkok in 2011. At the same time, the near misses of recent years and the specter of future disasters (e.g., the ever present threat of a global pandemic and the gradual but inevitable onset of climate change) have highlighted the need to manage disasters through a scientific approach. As a result, global awareness on risks of natural and man-made disasters has grown at a much accelerated pace than before and also underscored the need for integrated preparedness policies that extend beyond customary organizational boundaries.

The Philippines falls victim to extreme disasters as evidenced by calamities that recently struck the nation.

The aggregation of economic losses, infrastructure disruptions, population displacements, and mortalities make the Philippines the “world’s most disaster-hit country” in 2011, according to the Citizens’ Disaster Response Center.

In addition, data compiled by the Philippine National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council indicate that the majority of the top-10 costliest typhoons in recorded history occurred in recent years — with Pepeng (2009), Pedring (2011), Frank (2008), and Ondoy (2009) comprising the top of the list. With the vulnerability of the Philippines to super-typhoons and its location within the “Pacific ring of fire,” the nation has suffered from numerous catastrophic disasters — resulting in massive loss of lives, disruptions to economic livelihoods, and irreversible damage to critical infrastructure systems.

It is also significant to note that, in the wake of such disasters, people’s limited financial resources are inevitably channeled toward more urgent everyday needs; on the other hand, education is sacrificed, thus creating an insidious, self-reinforcing cycle of poverty in an already poor country.

Development of disaster preparedness and resilience strategies spans multidisciplinary fields, which include engineering, economics, emergency medicine, and public policy, among others.

Critical infrastructure systems (e.g., transportation, telecommunications, electric power, banking, etc.) are highly complex and interdependent. These interdependencies take the form of physical connections, information flows, organizational partnerships, and exchanges of commodities and services.

Our modern world has become more reliant on the essential services these critical infrastructure systems provide, hence ensuring their availability and recovery is of paramount importance particularly in the aftermath of disasters. Failure of infrastructure systems can also spin off additional public safety and environmental hazards as proven by incidents such as the British Petroleum (BP) oil rig spill and earthquake-induced Fukushima nuclear reactor failures.

Closer to home, recent spells of bad weather in the previous weeks resulted in flashfloods, which in turn triggered massive gridlocks that crippled transportation systems in large parts of Metro Manila. In his seminal book (Normal Accidents), Charles Perrow coined the term “interactive complexity” to describe chaotic outcomes that can potentially stem from combination of two or more “normal” discrete failures.

Research publications and funding opportunities on infrastructure safety and disaster management areas have gained momentum in light of the recent catastrophic disasters. A case in point, the United States Agency for International development (USAID) identifies disaster mitigation as one of its priority development areas.

Furthermore, USAID-Philippines also includes humanitarian assistance as one of its core programs, which comprise of initiatives in disaster response, early recovery of internally displaced persons, and disaster risk reduction. The number of infrastructure risk analysis and disaster-related articles also appears to be on a steady rise.

For example, queries for keywords such as “disasters” and “infrastructure” in databases such as ISI Web of Science, Scopus, and Google Scholar reveal hundreds of new articles pertaining to the adverse effects of disasters on infrastructure systems (several of which relate to climate change, energy, and sustainability).

Despite the surge in methodological development and policy formulation efforts in disaster assessment and management, significant gaps and opportunities still prevail.

To wit, the analysis of workforce recovery relative to critical infrastructure protection remains incremental. In contrast to the numerous publications on infrastructure systems, a disproportionately low number of disaster-related articles directly focus on critical workforce sectors. Arguably, the same workforce sectors that drive the economic prosperity of a region are also central in expediting the recovery of disrupted physical infrastructure systems.

In a country as disaster-prone as the Philippines, there is a strong need to develop tools and strategies based on cold, hard, scientific methodologies, as all too often, haphazard measures driven by good intentions fail to do the job.

There also exists a wealth of opportunities to synergize the technological innovations and policies that are separately explored in different scientific fields, institutions, and agencies. In his seminal book “7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen Covey coined the expression “1+1=3” to emphasize the importance of synergy.

In the context of this article, the synergistic fusion of knowledge across a diverse pool of experts and stakeholders will indeed result in broader and more effective impact on assessment, management, and communication of disaster risks. Integration of available analytical models, policymaking strategies, and best practices on enhancing infrastructure and economic resilience is necessary in today’s interdependent global society.


Dr. Joost R. Santos is an assistant professor of the George Washington University. The purpose of his visit to the Philippines is to provide educational and institutional outreach initiatives on disaster risk management, with acknowledgments to DOST’s Balik Scientist Program and the US National Science Foundation (Award #0963718). He may be contacted by e-mail (

Krista Danielle Yu is an assistant professor of Economics at De La Salle University. Her current research is on impact analysis of disasters on the welfare of various sectors of the economy. She may be contacted through e-mail (

Dr. Kathleen B. Aviso is an associate professor of Chemical Engineering at De La Salle University. Her research focuses on the use of optimization models for designing sustainable industrial systems. She may be contacted via e-mail (

Dr. Raymond R. Tan is a university fellow and full professor of Chemical Engineering at De La Salle University. He is also the current director of that institution’s Center for Engineering and Sustainable Development Research (CESDR). He may be contacted via e-mail (

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