Disaster risk management

Orly Mercado

Posted on August 28, 2006

We have no specific term for disaster in our language

“We have no specific term for the word disaster in our language,” she said. She was a government functionary attending a seminar on disaster risk management where I was a speaker. I asked her to explain. She said that the closest word she could think of in Dhivehi was “haadhisa” meaning incident. But after the 2004 tsunami that devastated many countries in the Indian Ocean including the Maldives, they use the word “kaarisa” to mean disaster. She added that it was a borrowed Arabic term.

I could understand why the Maldivians never found the need for such a term. This beautiful string of atolls and islands is probably close to our idea of paradise. Environmental extremes are infrequent. Close to the equator, it is not badly affected by typhoons, although they experience strong winds especially when cyclones move into the Arabian Sea or Bay of Bengal. Disasters seem to happen elsewhere, but not in the Maldives. All that changed with the tsunami.

Maldives is in an aseismic region. But an earthquake in far off Indonesia and the tsunami it triggered, brought home the reality that all of us in this planet are interconnected. With global warming, its low lying atolls are now threatened with rising sea levels and possible loss of shorefront lands. Moreover, increasing traffic in nearby shipping lanes, has also increased the risk of marine pollution and oil spills.

Maldives can learn a few lessons about oil spills with what is happening now in central Philippines. The problem in disaster management is how to sustain interest in programs related to readiness, risk mitigation and prevention during long periods of sun and sea in paradise. It is human nature to try to forget unpleasant experiences. As memory fades, we change priorities. Communicating risks is always a challenge, but it has to be met head on. Or else when disaster strikes, we will be scrambling to find terms in our local language to describe what we are going through.

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