From vulnerable to empowered – disaster risk education that matters

From left to right:  

Rog Amon, Ryan Damaso and Marah Sayaman  
Center for Environmental Concerns- Philippines (CEC) Philippines  



Abstract– The impacts of climate change are  obvious in the Philippines. Stronger and more frequent typhoons increase the risks of disasters endangering lives. The Center for Environmental Concerns-Philippines (CEC) has developed  its Community-based Disaster Risk Management (CBDRM) programme in response to the need of building climate and disaster-resilient  communities. The trainings of the CBDRM engage  learners to analyse their risks and vulnerabilities  in order to formulate and implement plans  to counter disasters. More importantly, trainings  are complemented with programmes in livelihood  and organisational development that will help  them pursue long-term development.   

Climate change impacts have brought the concept and reality of disasters to the fore of policy and development work. Hazards are sudden events that disturb the normal functioning of a community and society, inflicting harm and suff ering on vulnerable people, and often resulting in deaths or disasters. If not properly managed, disaster risks can derail development and aggravate poverty and unequal situations between people, communities, and even nation-states. In the context of deepening development issues and unabated environmental destruction, disasters are an additional threat to the poor, who are the most vulnerable and the ones most exposed to risks.

Disasters occur as a result of various causes and can be triggered by natural or man-made events. To countries most affected by climate change impacts, like the Philippines, the risk of disasters increases as natural hazards such as typhoons become stronger or more frequent. Extreme weather events, coupled with the Philippine’s natural geographical and geological setting, make the country more susceptible to natural disasters. This does not mean, however, that manmade disasters occur less frequently in the Philippines. Just recently a fire razed a factory in Metro Manila, killing more than 70 people. Overall, the Philippines remains one of the world’s most vulnerable countries, ranking third in the 2013 Disaster Risk Index.

“Haiyan belied the Philippine government’s proclamation that the country was 'ready'.”

Not as ready as you would have thought

The recent spate of disasters in the Philippines highlights the Filipino people’s vulnerability caused by widespread poverty, lack of capacity and weak social and government support systems. The super typhoon Haiyan which hit the country in November 2013 exposed the state of disaster preparedness in the country. Days went by before relief and emergency response teams reached Haiyan survivors. The death toll of more than 6,300 showed how ineffective disaster preparedness systems were in saving lives. Evacuation centres were found to be lacking in capacity to hold the homeless survivors. All of this happened despite the existence of a law on Disaster Risk Reduction and Management, and despite having public funds allocated for calamity and disaster events.

Haiyan belied the Philippine government’s proclamation that the country was “ready”. Development work in the country has since taken a turn towards disaster preparedness, as more civil society organisations engage in the issue and take on the challenge of helping communities be prepared for future disaster events. The work is hard and slow, the road ahead full of difficulties. But in all this, a lesson has been learned: the challenge to prepare for disasters can be turned into an opportunity – an opportunity to help the marginalised people realise their collective power and lead themselves towards disaster preparedness and even towards the goal of genuine development.

Disaster risk management education: The CEC experience

The Center for Environmental Concerns-Philippines (CEC) has been involved in disaster preparedness since before Haiyan struck and climate change and disasters became buzzwords. CEC’s work in disaster preparedness is closely linked with its advocacy for environmental integrity. It began as a response to an indigenous community affected by an earthquake in the Pampanga province in the 1990s. In the mid 2000s, CEC was involved in assisting a landslide-impacted community in the Northern part of Quezon province. The landslide-flashflood survivors requested an independent assessment of the natural hazards the community faces. They believed the government was just using the landslide risks as an excuse to clear the land for a so-called development project in the area. CEC’s research confirmed the risks but the community – with no option to transfer to safer grounds – decided to stay. CEC’s research assistance evolved to become capacity building on Community-based Disaster Risk Management (CBDRM). CEC also helped install an early warning device in the form of a manual rain gauge.

Since then, CEC has invariably responded to the needs of environmentally-challenged communities affected by the mine tailing spill in Rapurapu and surrounding Bicol coasts in 2006, the Guimaras oil spill in 2006, to the more recent Typhoons Ondoy, Sendong, Saola, Pablo, and the latest Typhoon Yolanda impact, among others. CEC’s focus communities in Quezon City, Rizal, Quezon Province, Zambales and Yolandaaffected areas have received trainings in disaster risk management. The trainings are given to CEC partner organisations which are linked with the barangay, the smallest local government unit. This is done to ensure continuity and support for the barangay disaster preparedness committee created at the end of the training programme.

From disaster preparation to community empowerment

CEC hopes that through the training programme residents can grasp the concept of disasters, the factors leading to the birth of a disaster, the hazards surrounding their communities and their communities’ risk to disaster. Ultimately, the trainings aim to empower residents to act on threats to their lives and communities by formulating plans to counter disasters, implementing these plans, and strengthening organisational and collective unity.

“In this way, disaster preparedness trainings become an opportunity for women, youth and senior citizens to take active participation in community affairs.”

As CEC works with marginalised communities, most of the training participants are peasants and fishermen, with significant attendance from women, senior citizens and youth. This is because men often find work outside their communities, while women prefer jobs within the neighbourhood so they can still assume responsibilities at home. In this way, disaster preparedness trainings become an opportunity for women, youth and senior citizens to take active participation in community affairs.

The training programme is also designed and implemented as a participatory education process, to help participants realise their own vulnerabilities and strengths. In the course of the learning session, participants are encouraged to share their insights on their communities’ vulnerabilities and analyse their situation. Only through their understanding of their dire conditions will learners yearn to challenge the status quo in order to improve their quality of life.

The CEC education programme engages adult learners in active learning that hones decision-making and healthy collaboration. CEC modules are also adapted to the language and culture of focus communities, circumstances and conditions of the communities are studied to ensure that the materials fit the needs of the learners. More importantly, the trainings are complemented with programmes in livelihood 82 2015 Global Citizenship Education 45  

Participants of a disaster preparedness training during the learning exercise "Ball of Disasters" and organisational development (People’s Organisation Management Training) that help communities pursue the long-term goal of development while arming themselves against disasters.

Participants of a disaster preparedness training during the learning exercise "Ball of Disasters",
© Center for Environmental Concerns-Philippines (CEC)

Build back better 

After the super typhoon Haiyan, the women of the town of Estancia in Iloilo province bore the additional responsibilities of securing food from relief distribution, salvaging materials for housing, taking care of sick members of the family and finding sources of extra income. The slow delivery of disaster rehabilitation and assistance of the government had further worsened their plight. Rather than giving up in the face of so many obstacles, the opposite occurred. The women started the women’s organisation Hugpong-Kababaihan (United Women) to serve their common interests as women, collectively assert their rights to development and demand justice for typhoon victims.

Building on this initiative, CEC works with Hugpong-Kababaihan for its Yolanda reconstruction programme in Iloilo which includes shelter repair assistance, communitybased livelihood support, organisational capacity development and environmental education. Environmental education on climate change, disaster preparedness and sharing best practice is necessary to enhance community resilience and a people-oriented “build back better” scenario. Besides environmental education, orientation seminars on women’s historical role in birthing social change were given to women of Hugpong-Kababaihan.

Communities need support to facilitate their involvement in the reconstruction process, to understand the causes of disasters, their own social and environmental vulnerability and their rights. With this initiative, CEC hopes to build and strengthen collective will on the ground through awareness building, community organising and common action.

“The biggest challenge is the economic situation of the training participants, who are mostly adults bearing the responsibility of feeding and supporting the family.”

Challenges in disaster risk management education

Education is a process fraught with challenges, and CEC’s experience with disaster risk management education is not exempted. Challenges abound, from the smallest detail, such as the absence of local words for key disaster risk management education vocabulary like “hazard” or “vulnerability”, to conflicts among members of partner organisations and problems in coordination with the local government units.

Residents of Barangay Malabago mapping out existing hazards in their village, © Center for Environmental Concerns-Philippines (CEC)

The biggest challenge is the economic situation of the training participants, who are mostly adults bearing the responsibility of feeding and supporting the family. Farmers are almost always busy from morning until the afternoon, while women are often at home and expected to take care of the young. And because most rural families are poor, every working hour is important – an hour missed because of training could be a meal sacrificed by the family. There have been cases when target participants miss a training day because of work, or times when training dates are moved because of low attendance.

The long working hours also affect the attention span of participants, who are tired from their livelihood activities and are not accustomed to long training hours. The interest that participants display at the beginning of the training usually wanes after some time. A good example of this is the fi shermen community in Zambales, where residents are awake during late evenings to early mornings – the best time to catch fish. The condition of the community challenges trainers to adapt, and to be creative and find ways to energise the learning sessions.

Disaster and social justice

Such realities teach CEC staff that community-based education cannot be divorced from the reality of poverty. Because of this, the education must also aim to emancipate learners from the shackles of poverty. Hence, CEC’s disaster risk management education modules stress that as long as many remain poor and without access to basic social services, a majority of the Filipino people will remain vulnerable and at high risk. It is also poverty which has deprived many Filipinos of the opportunity to attend schools and be better equipped to respond to disaster events. To counter this, CEC education fosters principles of education for sustainable development which takes into consideration the environment, society, culture and economic dimensions of sustainability. Moreover, community-based education strengthens the collective will of local organisations to cope with disaster, assert their right to development, fight for ecological justice and seek redress for government negligence over the past disasters.

Lessons learned from the field

There are other hurdles to a successful implementation of a disaster risk management education programme, but most become secondary and can be easily resolved if the trainers are determined and the participants are cooperative. CEC has learned some lessons from its own experience:

  1. Community members are the best teachers of the community – the CEC staff only help them learn from one another.
  2. Education on Disaster Risk Reduction does not end when the training ends; it is a process learned best through experience.   
  3. The people are interested and are willing to learn, it is up to the trainers to use this interest and willingness to the advantage of the learners.
  4. Partner organisations should be mobilised at all times. This way, the community members own the programme and feel accountable for its failure or success. 

Involving training participants all the way from the planning stage to the preparation and the assessment of the training itself is always key to the success of the education programme. The best practice of residents of Barangay Pagatpat and Malabago in Sta. Cruz Zambales, who escort trainers in going house-to-house and assist in the invitation and preparation of trainings, have resulted in the successful training of more than 100 members of Disaster Preparedness Committees and community members.

“Disaster risk management education can be a venue to strengthen the communities’ collective power, and enhance the people’s capacity to lead.”

Potential of education

To be safe in times of disaster and to tread the path of genuine development, communities need to be organised and united. Disaster risk management education can be a venue to strengthen the communities’ collective power, and enhance the people’s capacity to lead.

Disaster risk management education should deal with the social and political divide which further aggravates the conditions of the underserved members of the society. This means you need actions to empower them in taking control of their learning, and in the process, transforming lives. By studying the reasons that expose people to vulnerabilities – both social and environmental, learners are able to reflect on their situation, understand the need to work together and strategise for common goals.

About the authors

Rog Amon is the Coordinator of CEC’s Reconstruction Assistance Programme in Iloilo Province. With a background in Chemical Engineering, she was involved in several environmental research and advocacy campaigns. She is an alumna of the International Council for Adult Education’s Academy for Lifelong Learning Advocacy (IALLA).

As an education and training officer, Ryan Damaso helped develop and implement CEC’s Community-based Disaster Risk Management programme for its partner communities. He led communitybased trainings in environmentally-critical areas, such as in the mining-affected Island of Rapu-Rapu. He also contributed in developing the Center’s environmental education modules.

Marah Sayaman was part of the secretariat of the network Mobilizing Action for Transforming Environments in Asia Pacifi c Climate Change Learning Initiative (CLIMATE Asia Pacific) which promotes climate change education in the framework of education for sustainable development. As CEC’s senior researcher and media officer, she spearheaded the production of CEC’s publications and articles on mining, forestry, land reclamation, climate change, disaster and the state of the Philippine environment. 

Center for Environmental Concerns-Philippines (CEC)
26 Matulungin St, Barangay Central,
Diliman, Quezon City

Adult Education and Development


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