Disaster management: the ‘Cuban way’

Devastation in Cuba’s Pinar del Rio province after Hurricane Ivan hit in 2004. In response to the threat, the country evacuate

Comparisons must be made between the impact of the September 5 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, and the quake that hit Haiti in January.

In Haiti — with a population of about 9 million — about 250,000 people died in the earthquake. According to government figures, 200,000 were injured and 1 million were made homeless.

Eight months later, disaster still grips people’s lives.

Fortunately, but in staggering contrast, no lives were lost in New Zealand, although the earthquake was of a similar — but slightly more powerful — magnitude (7 on the Richter scale).

The nature of a global system that maintains these inequalities should be exposed over and over again.

New Zealand’s building codes set a world standard in seismic building regulations and are incorporated into the building codes of several countries, including the Caribbean Uniform Building Code.

On the other hand, a report provided to the Global Task Force on Building Codes by a member of a disaster risk management team that visited Haiti prior to the earthquake in 2009 said Haiti did have some building regulations, but they were not focused on building safety and were rarely carried out.

Haitian civil engineers and architects said any codes used for professionally designed and built private buildings would not be Haitian — but would depend on where that person studied (the US being most common).

Donor-funded buildings are usually built to a standard set by the donor or by the professional in charge. The State University’s engineering curriculum did not have any major elements on building codes.

Haiti’s problems are repeated in other underdeveloped nations.

The Philippines is one of the countries most vulnerable to earthquakes. Studies have found that the country’s school children are especially vulnerable due to substandard buildings.

Tens of thousands of people could die, in Manila alone, from an earthquake of the magnitude that hit Haiti and New Zealand. The building industry is riddled with corruption, undermining building industry safety standards and regulations.

The urban poor, who are a large part of the urban population, live in hovel-like structures that are built with flimsy pieces of cardboard, wood and discarded roofing materials, easily washed away by rains and typhoons.

Typhoon Ondoy, which hit the country in October 2009, killed thousands of people and displaced tens of thousands. It gave us a terrifying preview of what an earthquake could unleash.

But the problems faced by those of us living in Third World countries in coping with disasters goes beyond the inadequacy of building regulations. The basic problem is poverty.

A glance at the United Nation’s ranking of countries based on its Human Development Index (a measurement of education, life expectancy and income) indicates the problem. Haiti’s ranking is 149, compared to New Zealand’s ranking of 20 (out of 182 countries). Philippines ranking is 105.

The huge numbers of lives lost in disasters is a direct result of poverty. The poor in the Third World are more vulnerable, including to climate change-induced disasters, than those in the industrialised countries.

However, even a poor country can take effective measures to lessen the loss of lives and injuries if there is political will in government to prioritise protecting the lives of its people.

If New Zealand sets the world standard with its earthquake-safe buildings, then Cuba sets the world standard on how a poor country can save lives during disasters.

The Cuban example has been acknowledged and praised even by those not partial to the Cuban Revolution, such as the United Nations, which says Cuba is a case study in disaster risk management.

Between 1996 and 2002, six major hurricanes hit Cuba, killing 16 people out of the total 665 deaths in all countries affected. In 2004, Hurricane Charlie killed four people in Cuba and 30 people in Florida.

When Hurricane Ivan threatened Cuba the same year, the country evacuated 1.9 million people, 17% of the population, over 15 days.

All shelters were staffed with nurses, and doctors were sent to the high-risk areas. Then-president Fidel Castro went to the highest-risk area to help the effort.

No one was seriously injured or killed as a result of the hurricane.

Reuters reported in 2005 that Salvano Briceno, head of the UN’s International Secretariat for Disaster Reduction (ISDR), which focuses on disaster reduction, said: “The Cuban way could easily be applied to other countries with similar economic conditions and even in countries with greater resources that do not manage to protect their population as well as Cuba does.”

The ISDR points to Cuba as an example that the risk to people can be effectively reduced with low-cost measures and strong determination. The ISDR says the Cuban authorities are determined to implement disaster reduction policies in Cuba.

In a 2004 ISDR statement, Briceno said: “It is part of their development planning and their culture, which play a key role in saving lives and livelihoods. This illustrates the importance of a strong political will.

“Leaders of countries around the world have at their disposal the knowledge needed to reduce risk and vulnerability to hazards. Even poor countries are not entirely without options to mitigate or prevent the consequences of hazards.

“What is often lacking are concrete programs of action and the political will to implement policies and measures.”

This Cuban “political will”, however, does not come from particular individuals or even governments. The “Cuban way” is the logic of a society — an entire social, economic and cultural system — that places human beings and their needs as its central priority.

Cuba’s economy and society are based on socialist principles that put people before imperialist profits, resulting in the highest levels of human solidarity and culture.

Tragically and despite its heroic struggles against colonialism, imperialism has exploited Haiti for decades.

The US has intervened in its political affairs with impunity, supporting coups and organising military interventions to overthrow pro-people governments.

This is a history we in the Philippines are familiar with as a result of our own semi-colonial relationship with, and dependence on, the US.

The Cuban government has paid an equal amount of attention to the structural and physical aspects of disaster preparedness, but has also created a “culture of safety” through successful education and awareness campaigns.

The ISDR points to education as one of the main reasons for the low hurricane mortality rate in Cuba compared to its neighbours. Disaster preparedness, prevention and response are part of the general education curriculum.

People in schools, universities and workplaces are continuously informed and trained to cope with natural hazards. From an early age, all Cubans are taught how to respond when hurricanes approach the island.

Every year, they also have a two-day training session in risk reduction for hurricanes. The training includes simulation exercises and concrete preparation actions. This helps communities mobilise at the local level when a hurricane hits Cuba.

Cuba’s entire adult population is literate and can therefore access educational materials about disasters. The Cuban Red Cross, which provides teaching material, is reinforced by training courses and disaster drills for parents in the workplace, as well as by radio and television broadcasts.

There is an adequate road system in the country that facilitates speedy evacuation. Building codes are enforced, which reduces the impact of vulnerable substandard construction. About 95% of Cuban households have electricity and therefore can access information about disasters through radio and television.

Most importantly, the Cuban population is organised through a range of social, professional and political organisations that provide structures that can quickly mobilise the entire population in disaster.

All these features of Cuba’s disaster management program are direct results of the gains of the Cuban Revolution, which has created one of the most socially conscious, educated and politically organised and mobilised people in the world.

We, in the Philippines, have much to learn from the “Cuban way”.

[Reihana Mohideen is from the international desk of the Partido Lakas ng Masa (Power of the Labouring Masses Party). This article first appeared at her website, SocialistaFeminista.blogspot.com.]