Why is it Always the Poor?

Medan, Indonesia — Why is it always the poor who are swept away by the water, wind or invading armies? It’s a question I posed to Dr. Randy Day, head of the General Board of Global Ministries of The United Methodist Church and The Rev. Paul Dirdak, head of the United Methodist Committee on Relief.

Their insights are valuable. The poor are
always most affected by calamities because they build with construction
materials that are scavenged, or low-cost. These materials do not allow for
substantial buildings.

They build on
land that is available to them. Sometimes they are squatters. This is land
exposed to flooding. It might be steep hillsides. It’s available precisely
because it’s less desirable and altering it would be prohibitive, relative to
return on investment.

They build
with the construction techniques they know. There are no building codes for
squatter housing. Sometimes the main criteria is what works to keep the rain
out (mostly). I’ve seen houses built from shipping crates, flattened tin cans
and fiberboard wrapped in bread wrappers. So it’s
vulnerable.

When strong winds or
crashing waters roll through these vulnerable communities, they take a toll in
destroyed shelter, and most tragically, in destroyed
lives.

The tsunami was powerful
enough to destroy even substantial buildings, although it’s apparent in many
areas that the more substantial the building, the less damage it sustained. So,
proper construction can make a
difference.

This discussion hints at
some exciting thinking. What if communities were built with location as a
primary consideration, to avoid flooding, for example? And what if housing were
constructed to endure certain kinds of risk factors, such as wind, or
earthquakes?

In my home state
of Oklahoma which is plagued by tornados each spring construction techniques are
being added to codes to require reinforced tie-downs for rooves and more people
are constructing “safe rooms.”

These techniques will result in
more durable housing and they will save lives. What if the poor in vulnerable
areas benefitted from such thinking as well? It’s exciting to hear people
thinking in this way. It would be even more exciting if local officials and
governments saw value in doing it. Let’s hope this is such a time.

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