While the archipelago has a long history of vulnerability to natural hazard, the island-nation has suffered a spate of particularly severe events in recent decades. Especially in the early 1990s, a close succession of major disasters cost thousands of lives, caused billions of pesos in damage to infrastructure and lost production, and, in some cases, altered the very landscape, engulfing provincial towns and burying rich agricultural paddies under metres of mud and lahar. 1 These ‘costs’ are borne by society at large and by communities in particular but the true extent of their impact is rarely acknowledged and almost never considered as a significant factor in public debate or government analysis. Yet their cumulative effect is considerable: a significant factor in national politics, deflecting economic policies and programmes, and an important issue in inter-ethnic conflict. Moreover, natural hazard, national disaster, international relief and foreign debt are woven into a complex and symbiotic cycle that maintains the Philippines among the less affluent of nations and prevents it from recognising the potential of its skilled and hard-working peoples.
The true measure of these costs can only be gauged with any degree of accuracy over the last 30 years when more extensive statistics on the frequency and magnitude of natural hazards are coupled with more reliable and comprehensive data on their effects. The National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC) of the Office of Civil Defence (OCD) has collected and compiled data that estimate the numbers of killed or injured, of families and people affected, of houses destroyed or damaged, and has attempted to express these in financial terms. Even so, the statistics are still far from complete for the 1970s and must remain only best ‘guestimates’ when it comes to fixing monetary values to the costs incurred. The real losses to families and private individuals are beyond the competency of the Filipino state to gauge, especially in a country where private insurance remains the preserve of the few. However, these reservations apart, this chapter is able to document the impact of natural hazard on the Philippines as a national society to a much greater degree of accuracy. The last 30 years have been ones in which natural hazards have become national disasters with a degree of regularity that suggest that their frequency and magnitude are intensifying.