Over at Vietnam where Haiyan (a.k.a. Yolanda) is now headed, “more than 600,000 people” have reportedly been evacuated. This raises the question over whether enough had actually been done by local authorities in areas along Yolanda’s path to prepare for the worst.The extent of the devastation in Tacloban City has gone beyond people’s worst nightmares. Earlier, National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) executive director Eduardo del Rosario reported that “Tacloban City is 95% devastated.” An unimaginable tragedy considering the vast promise exhibited by that city in the past. In an extensive survey conducted by the Asian Institute of Management Policy Center and released in July 2010, Tacloban City was ranked among the top ten most competitive cities in the Philippines. Tacloban ranked fifth overall, and second in the emerging cities category. Tacloban was one of the fastest growing cities in the Philippines. It had one of the lowest poverty incidence rates in the country (at roughly 9%, while the national poverty incidence stands at 30%), and was governed by the richest local government unit in Eastern Visayas.
Over the years, however, environmental degradation has increasingly put at risk the safety of the province’s galloping population. Population growth over much of the Philippines has put pressure on food production in Leyte, one of the most productive rice-growing provinces in the country. However, the demand for more land to cultivate has also resulted in increased risk of flashflooding and landslides as hilly terrain is cleared of forest cover in favour of rice paddies. According to a study conducted by Beatriz Jadina of the Department of Agronomy and Soil Science of the Visayas State University in Baybay, Leyte, progressive encroachment of human habitation and agriculture has altered the landscape of Leyte significantly to the detriment of its residents’ safety…
In 2010 the forest cover further retreated to only 14 percent, meaning that the former geologic integrity of the area had been compromised, and a sharp departure from the previous character of the provice as largely covered by tropical rainforests, save for swampy areas.
“Logging had depleted the forests of Leyte and Southern Leyte. In fact, a significant portion of the hills and mountains is devoid of vegetative cover. The current land use in Southern Leyte is dominated by coconut, abaca, banana, grasslands, upland crops [originally under dipterocarp forests] and rice in lowland areas,” Jadina stressed.
Whilst the wrenching effort to come to terms with the vast human tragedy that befell Leyte and surrounding areas continues, many have since recognised that not much could’ve been done in the short term to save more lives. Indeed, Leyte province was pretty much a sitting duck. Like a cat frozen in the middle of the road, dazzled by the headlights of an oncoming car, all that residents in these areas could do as ominous reports of the power and size of the coming storm trickled through, was assume the brace position and hope for the best. Bahala na. There was nowhere to run, and nowhere to hide. Gone were the trees to offer shelter from the winds and surging floodwaters.
One really cannot take seriously the expressions of regret and sorrow being exhibited by people who as a matter of habit generally pay no attention to preparedness yet possess the resources and influence to champion those focus areas. The Philippines’ lack of a credible military capability proportionate to the size of its population, for example, speaks heaps about an entire society’s lack of concern for its own security and safety. And so, once again, the country turns to its big-time ally across the Pacific for help. By some accounts relief is coming through very slowly if at all thanks to this lack of military resources.
The Philippines does not have sufficient resources on its own to deal with a disaster of this magnitude, and the US and other governments and agencies were mounting a major relief effort, said Philippine Red Cross chairman Richard Gordon.
At the request of the Philippine government, the US defence secretary, Chuck Hagel, directed US Pacific Command to deploy ships and aircraft to support search-and-rescue operations and airlift emergency supplies, according to a statement released by the department.
Indeed, President Benigno Simeon “BS” Aquino III, no less, should’ve known better than to throw his usual royal tantrum at what he preceived to be a failure of regional local government units (LGUs) in the devastated areas after the fact. Perhaps his presence there would have been a bit more useful before Yolanda made landfall — so that he could personally evaluate the state of preparedness of the government there pre-emptively. Had he found lapses in preparedness there before the disaster, his tirades and finger-pointing today would likely have come across as a bit more justified.
For that matter, tragedies at this scale are common in the Philippines. Yet there is little evidence that Filipinos collectively learn from these disasters and apply them towards mitigating future risk. Tens of thousands of Filipinos, for example, have died in preventable disasters. In the 1980s, the sinking of a Sulpicio Lines vessel claimed the lives of several thousand people. Yet in the subsequent years following what was recorded as the biggest peace time maritime disaster in the world, several more Sulpicio ships sank under similar circumstances claiming thousands more. Every couple of years, hundreds of Filipinos die in election-related violence. Many more die in floods and mudslides whose causes could be traced to preventable human activity — illegal logging, indiscriminate property development, and lack of enforcement of compliance to building codes.
Life is cheap in the Philippines. And preventive measures to minimise loss of life in times of calamity are expensive.
The business case for adequate disaster preparedness in the Philippines is quite simply not investment grade.
* * *Like Bohol, also recently devastated by an Act of God, Tacloban has a rich history. Leyte province was the first to be liberated by the combined Filipino and American troops as the tide turned against Japan towards the close of World War II. General Douglas MacArthur’s assault troops landed in the Tacloban and Palo beaches (White Beach and Red Beach, respectively) and in the neighboring town of Dulag (Blue Beach) on 20 October 1944. These landings signaled the eventual victory of the Filipino and American forces and the fulfillment of MacArthur’s famous promise: “I Shall Return.” Three days later, on 23 October, at a ceremony at the Capitol Building in Tacloban, General MacArthur accompanied by President Sergio Osmeña made Tacloban the temporary seat of the Commonwealth Government and subsequently the temporary capital of the Philippines until the complete liberation of the country.
Has the Philippines really been “liberated”? The answer to that question becomes more and more debatable with each passing year.[NB: Parts of this article were lifted from the Wikipedia.org article “Tacloban” in a manner compliant to the terms stipulated in the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License that governs usage of content made available in this site. Photo of Tacloban courtesy MoveLands.com.]
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