October 08, 2009

Disaster waiting to happen

We Filipinos, as a people, have yet to learn our lessons well in the wake of one of the most devastating floods to hit Metro Manila and outlying provinces brought by low-intensity typhoon Ondoy that most of us had simply taken for granted. It will not do to accept the lame excuses - from “climate change” to “overstrained government resources” and “unusually heavy rainfall”. Even more unacceptable and condemnable is the tack of blaming the victims, the people who built their houses on or beside riverbanks, creeks and floodways and who were washed away, for their current miserable plight.

For government to cite the record-level rainfall and other unusual weather disturbances presumably induced by climate change as the main reason for being caught flat-footed is a clear and pathetic attempt to escape responsibility and justify criminal neglect and inutility of those in charge.

Worse, it perpetuates the backward idea that we can do nothing but cope with what nature brings, including periodic calamities that are our lot because the Philippines is located in a typhoon belt or the oft-mentioned “inter-tropical convergence zone”. Consequently, the necessary and vital measures that need to be put in place to avert disasters or at least mitigate the destructive affects of natural hazards such as storms and earthquakes are left undone or only haphazardly done.

It is precisely because we are sitting smack on the intersection of a typhoon belt and an earthquake-and-volcano belt (the Pacific "rim-of-fire") that calamities are already second nature to us. We are not lacking, then, in technological and administrative know-how and expertise on the dangers of these calamities and how to deal with them. Rather, the roots of the disasters are both historical and social.

In truth there is no longer such a thing as a "natural calamity" anymore. Humankind has so interacted, in fact, interfered with nature, without fully comprehending its laws and the implications of his interference or even imagining that he controls nature and bends the laws of nature to conform to his will.

It is a harsh lesson that humankind has learned from the time man discovered how to use fire and water, then steam and much later, nuclear power. Man has come to understand that the forces of nature can be tamed to make life less brutish and more comfortable, but always according to its own laws. The lack of understanding of those laws, or failure to abide by them (usually in an arrogant attempt to ignore, if not foolishly defy these laws) invariably end up in disaster.

The laws of nature are hard, unbending and immutable. They only appear to change because man's understanding of those laws are unified, simplified and rendered more precise. With nature, the dictum "ignorance of the law is no excuse" is absolute and unforgiving.

Yet, the real transgressors get away literally with murder because nature has a much more dilated time line relative to ours; the forces of nature take time - even eons - to act. But when a certain threshold is reached, all hell literally breaks loose. Most often the real causes of the disaster can be concealed or forgotten, deliberately or not, buried along with the corpses or disposed of unceremoniously along with the debris and garbage.

Concretely and historically in the Philippines, those transgressors include the despoilers and plunderers of the country’s natural resources especially during the American colonial period, post-independence and up to the present time. These include the foreign corporate interests and their local partners in mining, logging, agribusiness and real estate development including their financiers and the series of supine governments that failed to protect and conserve the national patrimony.

Government policy is unchanged. The Arroyo regime has closed its eyes to the continuing wanton and over exploitation of our natural resources alongside the accelerating degradation of the environment. It has pushed for more and more liberalization of laws and regulations governing foreign investments in the country.

In fact, the kinds of disaster inflicted by government policies on our people cover not only physical disaster but economic backwardness and impoverishment as well. These are exactly the conditions that create our people’s vulnerability to the effects of so-called natural calamities.

It is no accident that the poor are the worst hit by these calamities. The iniquitous social system is such that those who have less in life become the most vulnerable. Notwithstanding all the hype that calamities are "great equalizers" and victimize rich and poor alike, the reality is that the rich are well-protected and insulated from disaster or have the wherewithal to quickly recover most losses, while the poor, already destitute and deprived, lose everything and are at a complete loss on how to pick things up and start all over again.

To make matters worse, the Arroyo administration had not put in place the plan and the resources to deal with even half of Ondoy's rainfall, just as it had failed, like other administrations before it, in enforcing the laws and undertaking the measures that would have mitigated, if not prevented much of the damage Ondoy could bring.

Seen in this light, the lavish spending on the de facto President Arroyo’s innumerable trips abroad, the still unaccounted for millions of dollars in Overseas Development Aid intended for disasters and calamities, the corrupt-ridden government projects and the wasteful expense on government’s failed counter-insurgency programs are certainly more plausible reasons for the kind of unprecedented disaster that befell our people rather than the 12-hr, 400+ millimeters of rainfall.

Disaster preparedness is a distinctly government function that necessitates a comprehensive, scientific study of disaster risks and coming up with a plan on how to deal with them in all respects. These include measures to remove aggravating conditions and effectively mobilizing not just the government machinery but the entire people for the gargantuan effort needed for preemptive action, rescue, relief and rehabilitation.

While past governments have their share of responsibility in failing to undertake the measures that would have mitigated, if not prevented, these disasters, the GMA regime has made the task even more difficult by destroying government credibility, which is required for any attempt to mobilize the people themselves for disaster preparedness.

The solution then is not “bayanihan”, “balikatan”, international humanitarian aid nor even private relief efforts ala ABS-CBN’s “Sagip Kapamilya”. The solution is to bring about a government that truly serves the people, a government that people can repose their faith and trust in and can mobilize both human and material resources to face natural calamities and prevent them from becoming man-made disasters.#

*Published in Business World
9-10 October 2009