|BASIN - News No. 12 : Learning from Tradition (BASIN-GTZ-SKAT, 1996, 34 p.)|
The Philippines is one of the most disaster prone countries in the world. Aside from events like the eruption of Mount Pinatubo, the country is battered every year by dozens of typhoon storms. Some of these calamities make the international headlines. But thanks to modern warning systems and monitoring, many disasters do not involve much loss of life and thus are hardly noticed beyond Manila. However, the economic and social cost of typhoons is still vast. Millions of Filipinos are affected every year. How do they cope? And is their knowledge and are the practical ways they mitigate against natural hazards relevant to others?
In 1995 a research project set out to answer these questions. The team included staff from a local NGO, and members of the village council in Igabalagao, a community of about 5000 on Panay island. Alongside them were five visitors with knowledge of building, disaster management and development issues in the Philippines. Two from the UK based Oxford Centre for Disaster Studies and Intermediate Technology Development Group. The others were a structural engineer from the University of the Philippines in Manila, and Juju and Ning Tan - husband and wife team of development worker and architect from Manila. The aim of the project was to discover how people had coped traditionally and to relate time-honoured practices to modern and rapidly changing conditions of life in a Filipino farming community. This proved to be a challenging task.
In the first place we had to try to create a forum which would allow the most vulnerable residents of the village - typically the poorest and least articulate - an opportunity to explain their situation and express their opinions. Their situation is an important part of the broader picture of hazard vulnerability. The study also included tasks such as assessing the transport infrastructure and surveying community buildings which could be used as temporary shelters. And then all the information - a capacity and vulnerability profile - had to be structured in a way that was both recognisable to the people who had offered it and at the same time useful for local disaster management planning. The following story is a record of the research which took place during a fortnight in May 1995.
A Local Profile
Igbalangao is a medium sized village near the west coast of Panay island. Gaudencia Delgado lives there with her sons (her husband works in Saudi Arabia). Like most other villagers, they live in a bamboo house with a thatched roof. They keep a pig, a few chickens, and grow vegetables and fruit in a small garden. Their main asset is a small field which produces one crop of rice.If the rains are favourable they also manage a sparse crop of groundnuts or beans. The Delgados could hardly be described as poor, but they have very little security. Their daily routine is tied to the climate -working the land. Their few acres of land are mortgaged, informally, to a wealthy neighbour as collateral for a loan to replace staple food lost in typhoon Ruping in 1990.
The research team spent five days in the village. Our twin entry points for the study were buildings and typhoons. Both of these were explained to the village kabalaka - peoples organisation - which was hosting the research team. Gaudencia Delgado is the chair of Igbalangao kabalaka. With her encouragement, several hundred villagers took part and by the end of the five day workshop a wealth of information had been assembled. Much of it never appears in official statistics or formal development plans. Some of it was paper and some on film but the most detailed picture of vulnerability and capacity was contained in a three dimensional map of the village and a miniature house which local artisans built. Both were created, it seemed, by a cross-section of the community.
The visitors then withdrew to re-assemble the data and relate it to national disaster management procedures and policies and then be prepared to present it back to a village meeting three days later. In the Philippines, the barangay (village) council is the first link in the government-sponsored nation-wide chain of institutions responsible for disaster warning and post-disaster response. Feedback to the community had to complement the governments decentralisation programme which is gradually devolving responsibility for local planning, including disaster management, down to local committees.
We decided to use three dimensional mapping, a research technique, in this study in the hope that it would give people who rarely have an opportunity to contribute their views and understanding of their own situation. It seemed to work. The map was made on a sheet of 8 x 4 foot plywood, a popular building material in the Philippines. The village street plan was drawn first, then the surrounding hills which form the local watershed were modelled in flour and water dough. The river and seasonal streams and every house in the village were marked. This map became the key reference point for all the other workshop sessions. Day-by-day more detail was added. Often, people were found arguing over whether a particular house was well maintained -and therefore more likely to withstand the next typhoon -or whether the people who lived near the river had somewhere dry to store their harvest. The river floods much more severely now than it did even ten years ago so villagers living near the river are much more vulnerable.
Each house was mapped and classified by size, materials and state of repair (different seeds and stones represented various features that people decided were important). Many occupants are tenants, and they were thought to be especially vulnerable to the effect of a typhoon. The mapping gave people a chance to identify who were most vulnerable and it led into workshop sessions which described both how the situation had changed in recent years and what-if forecasting. What if the bullock drowned, or what if the son of the widow who now lives alone is unable to reach the village when the road link is cut by flooding? Does Igbalagaos dagyao - the community spirit that everyone said they rely on - extend to those villagers who had migrated from upland villages to escape from communist insurgency ten years ago?
The map seemed to give many people a chance to express concerns about their vulnerability, not only to typhoons, and it spelt out in a matter-of- fact and non-confrontational way the hidden structures of power and patronage such as that existing between landlords and tenants. Kabalaka members said that this information was thoroughly familiar, but the map had given them an overview which would be invaluable for the disaster management plan which the community were supposed to prepare as part of the governments decentralisation strategy.
The research was also to help discover whether coping strategies and indigenous knowledge in typhoon prone regions in the Philippines may be relevant to other communities. One task was to investigate traditional and modern building techniques to see if construction techniques developed there would be worth transferring elsewhere. This did not go as we expected, but the information that did emerge, and the way it was presented, is particularly illuminating.
At the beginning of the week a group of builders were asked what special techniques they used to make a traditional bamboo framed house typhoon resistant. Nothing, they replied. But these houses had obviously survived the many typhoons that had struck the area in the recent decades, so a different approach was needed.
Others while working on the village map explained why newly built and well maintained houses were more resilient. They marked those houses which had suffered damage and when we surveyed a sample of them a pattern started to emerge. The main upright and horizontal poles in the framework are held together with tongue and groove joints pegged together with split bamboo wedges. Years of exposure causes these joints to lose their rigidity. One of the important maintenance jobs is to go over each building every year or so, hammering in all the pegs. If a pole has split or rotted it is a simple task to replace it. Wobbly houses are very vulnerable in high winds!
An intriguing discovery was that none of the bamboo houses had any form of cross bracing. Text books stress that frame structures without cross bracing are almost certain to collapse under the pressures of strong winds. But Igbalangaos houses were still standing. To discover why, and given that the builders were unable to explain it clearly, we asked them to make mock-ups of the key joints - those connecting uprights to horizontals, walls to floors and the roof to the walls. Here was a real task and the builders started the job with enthusiasm. But every sample joint turned out - wobbly. In the end, they decided to make a complete miniature house.
It took two days and considerable discussion. Not only was the completed structure totally rigid, but the process of putting it together provoked wide ranging debate about houses and housing. The depth of Igbalagaos indigenous knowledge about disaster resistant house construction, which the builders could not explain in words became apparent in their work. We learnt about modular design, about cultivating bamboo and selecting the right culms for each part of the building, about thatching, about rituals such as being sure to appease the right spirits by starting to build on particular days, about different styles of weaving bamboo panels for walls and window shutters and, most importantly, about the many small details which helped the house resist wind loads. For example, every bamboo rafter, instead of just being nailed or lashed to the ridge pole is carefully shaped to fit into meticulously cut notches along each side of the ridge pole. Fine craftsmanship produced almost invisible and very strong joints. A single joint, as Igbalangaos builders found, is unlikely to be rigid, and so manuals about building in windy regions stress that every right angle joint should be braced with a diagonal member. Igbalangaos miniature house, and hundreds of family homes in the village do not have cross bracing and do not need it. Fully assembled, the house braces itself.
People living in older houses which have become a bit rickety with age have a very simple method of protecting their homes. They erect external buttresses using long bamboo poles. One end is wedged under the roof eaves and the foot is pegged firmly to the ground. The window shutters are closed and people take refuge in the village school or with neighbours living in newer or modern houses. If the thatch blows off it only takes a day or so to repair.
Wealthier residents of Igbalangao are not necessarily less vulnerable to the effects of typhoons. Everyone agreed that those that can afford the ever popular villa style bungalows with concrete walls and iron sheet roofs did not suffer much during storms. But the people who live in what they termed half-way houses often have a rough time. A half-way house is a hybrid of traditional and modern - a compromise both in design and construction technique. With few exceptions the surveys showed that it was these houses which had suffered most damage in recent storms. Interestingly, it was the builders, who had actually been responsible for carrying out the modifications, at the house-owners behest, who pointed out the reasons why these houses had been damaged.
Incompatibility between traditional methods and modern materials is the root of the problem. Iron sheet roofing, for example, cannot easily be securely fixed to bamboo roof structures; the nails do not hold very well. Whilst it is a simple and inexpensive matter to replace a few panels or even the entire covering of a wind-damaged palm-thatch, there is not much worth salvaging of an iron sheet roof that has been ripped away in typhoon force winds. And the increasingly common practice of replacing split-bamboo lattice-work wall panels with plywood sheets seems to make the entire structure more prone to storm damage. Wind can blow through open weave wall panels whilst the pressure that builds up against plywood-clad walls puts severe stress on the basic frame of these buildings.
This study shows that people in Igbalangao have a comprehensive range of traditional techniques to help them resist and recover. Their bamboo houses are fairly robust. Typhoons have always presented a serious threat but the community faces severe threats from other risks. In particular, they reported that their annual harvest is at risk from flash floods that now strike every year. They have ways of coping with typhoons, but declining food security is now a much more pressing problem.
Young people are migrating to nearby towns, to Manila or overseas to earn a living. Older residents still have their buttresses ready to prop their houses. This project allowed them to present their own perceptions of vulnerability and coping. To their visitors it seemed that they are better equipped to cope with meterological acts of god than some of the twentieth century threats associated with rapid modernisation.