It has been becoming increasingly apparent that “natural” disasters are now a routine occurrence all over the Philippines. The idea that Filipinos ought to be more “prepared” for such calamities — whilst something one would think ought to have been an obvious national priority — is only now resonating across the broader public. To the consternation of the residents of the country’s premiere megalopolis, even Metro Manila has become Disaster Central of late. Just a few hours of rain is now enough to engulf most of the city in muddy, sewage-laced, disease-infested flood waters. This is thanks to decades of chaotic over-development and over-population fouling up the natural drainage system that is woven all over the area’s original landscape and smothering what meagre infrastructure had been built since the city’s colonial periods.
One would think that the lessons delivered in 2009 by Typhoon Ketsana (Ondoy) had sunk deep after Metro Manilans who bore the brunt of its fury underwent a couple months of noisy imperial reflection in its aftermath. Looking at how Manila continues to slog through monumental floods that follow mere fractions of the rainfall delivered by Ondoy five years hence shows that most of those lessons remain unlearned. Untold billions of pesos in productivity losses are incurred as a result of disruptions to Manila’s urban hum (or, more appropriately, urban wheezing) brought about by these “inconveniences”.
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Poverty has also rendered millions of Filipinos helplessly vulnerable to nature’s vicissitudes. Many of the tens of thousands of the victims of Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) and Typhoon Washi (Sendong) which struck the Philippine cities of Tacloban and Cagayan de Oro in 2013 and 2011 respectively were impoverished city residents that had settled (many of them illegally) along coastal plains prone to storm surges. Back in 2006, a landslide struck and buried Barangay Guinsaugon in the municipality of St. Bernard in Leyte killing close to 2,000 people. This disaster followed a record 571.2mm of rainfall over five days — three months worth of average rainfall for that region. Fifteen years before that in the city of Ormoc in the same province, 5,000 souls perished in flashflooding and landslides also following heavy rainfall in 1991.
Nature, it seems, is always a few steps ahead of Filipinos. She may have finally got the country’s top talking heads yammering about being “prepared” for weather disturbances. But just as all those “initiatives” are getting off the ground, the spectre of an Ebola outbreak now looms in the horizon. Are Filipinos prepared for that? The prospects in the area of disease control so far do not look very promising. The same key components of the Pinoy Condition — lack of foresight, culture of poverty, belated reactiveness, and paralysing politics — will likely render the Philippines a sitting duck for a possibly catastrophic outbreak much the same way as Filipinos can only sit and watch helplessly as Chinese troops march into their outlying territories.
It is hard to have confidence that a society that cannot even run its trains safely will ever come up with the right solutions to the many problems that beset it. A vital line of the Manila Metro Rail Transit (MRT) system, the MRT 3 which links the city’s midtown central business district in Makati City to its northern suburbs is caught in a spiral of decay just 15 years since it went operational in 1999. This leaves commuters who rely on EDSA, the land artery along which the MRT 3 tracks were laid, once again reliant on public buses, many of which are being run by crooked entrepeneurs. If our society fails to step up to the challenges that its relatively affluent citizens face, how much more the challenges that the least powerful and influential of the lot contend with?
The Philippines, we might remind ourselves, is a society not exactly renowned for harbouring a genuinely caring regard for its poorest citizens. Affluent Filipinos routinely drive by scenes of extreme poverty while cocooned in their airconditioned cars without batting an eyelash. Not much has been done about the squalid ships used to ferry the country’s probinsyanas by the thousands to their hometowns across the archipelago’s shark-infested waters despite that industry accounting for the planet’s worst peacetime maritime disasters in history. Vast colonies of squatters are encamped all over the city, many at the very doorsteps of the nation’s most elite thinkers and policy hacks. And most horrific of all Filipino pracitces is the way unidentified bodies are disposed of by the thousands following such disasters — often in mass unmarked graves.
So it is quite hard to take the noisy drumbeating about the sort of “preparedness” that benefits this vast “C-D” demographic with anything more than a grain of salt.
Looming less than two years ahead is the 2016 presidential elections. Changes in presidents have been notoriously disruptive for a society that could ill-afford disruptions to the business of doing business. Current President Benigno Simeon ‘BS’ Aquino III, for one, has been highly-criticised for summarily canning billions of pesos in infrastructure projects started by his predecessor former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo when he came to power in 2010. Many believe this was done either (1) primarily out of spite or (2) to free up hundreds of millions of pesos to channel into the pockets of “friendly” legislators as rewards for their “cooperation” in various political “projects”. Most likely both. Indeed, included in that budgetary massacre was up to 1.9 billion pesos worth of flood control projects.
So we’ve come full circle back to the quaint idea the Filipinos could find it within their collective wits to be “prepared” for the next big disaster. Funny that, considering that they are already at wits’ end in their efforts to prepare for another disastrous presidency despite having lived through the current one.
benign0 is the Webmaster of GetRealPhilippines.com.