01/11/2014 05:51 EST | Updated 03/13/2014 05:59 EDT

Ice Storms, Typhoons and Even Wars Can't Beat Human Resilience

Last month, I prepared Christmas turkey like never before. I cooked it on top of a gas stove, the only energy source in my home for seven days. Like tens of thousands of other people in Ontario, Quebec and eastern Canada, I was a victim of the pre-Christmas ice storm that knocked out electricity for extended periods, playing havoc with our daily comforts and routines.

At my house, we huddled around a single fireplace for warmth and burned dozens of candles for light. (The candles quickly lost their ambiance.) What started as an adventure turned into a challenge. But I had no real reason to complain.

Only days before the holidays, I returned from the Philippines where I was shaken by the extent of the devastation wreaked by Super Typhoon Haiyan. A lack of electricity was the only thing I now had in common with the people of Tacloban, where Haiyan levelled most homes and killed some 7,000 people (not including the nearly 2,000 that are still missing). I had food in my home and more when needed from the store down the street. I could move freely around my city. I had places to go for warmth and a shower. And I had clean water.

In stark contrast, the Philippines is still struggling more than two months after being battered by Haiyan to provide these basics to thousands of homeless people as well as those fortunate enough to have a roof over their heads. Dirty and stagnant water surely contributed to the Dengue fever I picked up from a Philippines mosquito. And the region's crowded infirmaries likely contributed to my also coming down with pneumonia.

Back home I was treated quickly and successfully. I know some Canadians take their health system for granted or become frustrated with its shortcomings and faults. But some of these faults and shortcomings still pale in comparison to most of the world's healthcare systems, including that of the Philippines right now. We don't always appreciate our good fortune or put into perspective our battles with nature.

When natural disaster strikes in the less developed world, the social infrastructure, including healthcare, is damaged along with the physical infrastructure. In such places, people, especially children, die from easily treatable diseases. Simply put, there are no line-ups for flu shots in places like the Philippines -- they have extremely limited vaccine supplies to begin with.

It is the role of NGOs to focus on a disaster's underbelly while most everyone else concentrates on the carnage at street level. That carnage can be overwhelming, as in Haiyan's aftermath, but it masks societal damage that is even more costly and difficult to repair. When disaster interrupts or ends children's education, the bill for restoring a school is minor when compared to the cost of a generation missing the benefits of formal learning.

Natural disasters are relatively brief single events followed by lengthy re-building. However, human disasters rooted in politics such as the relentless Syrian civil war and the more recent one in South Sudan have an even more profound impact on social infrastructure. When, for example, professionals such as teachers or medical personnel flee for safety, they usually don't return, and it takes decades to replace them. At the same time, prolonged fighting creates a flood of refugees who may never return to the stability of their former communities.

Another concern: donors become frustrated when confronted with seemingly intractable political conflict. And when all sides involved in the fighting present a disagreeable face, public frustration turns to cynicism. Our job as NGOs is to keep everyone's eye on the ball -- the thousands, even millions, of innocent civilians who need our attention and help.

That is why we advocate for humanitarian access in conflict zones, no matter what the dispute. At all times, people have the right to be fed, sheltered and receive basic medical care. Their children have the right to an education.

When looking at the year ahead, I fear the human calamities in war zones and fragile states like South Sudan, Syria and the Central African Republic, just to name a few, will get worse before they get better. There will be plenty of work for NGOs -- and for all of us -- to do.

But I am confident that solutions will emerge. They won't necessarily, or only, come from political leaders. They are more likely to come from ordinary people who do extraordinary things in times of crisis.

During the ice storm, people on my street helped each other in a number of ways, from providing food and shelter to clearing tree branches. People rose to the occasion. The community came together. Whether it is in Toronto, Tacloban or the South Sudanese capital of Juba, neighbours are the first responders. They are the ones who will rescue us from the rubble.


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