November 21, 2013

Disaster aggravated

So much has been said about the resilience and fighting spirit of the Filipino people as exemplified by the millions of families ravaged by super typhoon Yolanda (internationally named Haiyan).  Such praise is not misplaced given that the vast majority of our people have long been suffering under socioeconomic conditions that have kept them constantly treading the water to survive, barely keeping their heads above it, and sinking to extinction with every adverse event or circumstance. 

But it is wrong and deceitful to use this as a camouflage for sheer incompetence, criminal negligence, lack of genuine concern, preoccupation with image-building and a propensity for finger-pointing, hand-washing, and massaging of facts that the Aquino government has displayed in the wake of this latest calamity visited upon our calamity-prone archipelago.

Such calamities (usually described as "natural" but, invariably, also man-made) are a fact of life in a country geographically located and geophysically constituted so as to be regularly visited by typhoons and storm surges, shaken by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, deluged by floods and buried by landslides.   The increasing frequency and fury of bizarre weather disturbances attributable to climate change, largely the result of environmental destruction and degradation carried out primarily by highly industrialized economies while ravaging the more vulnerable developing countries, are harbingers that the situation for island-nations such as ours can only go from bad to worse.

However, human intervention, most especially the organized, systematic , comprehensive and widespread kind that only governments both national and local can put together with the cooperation of an enlightened citizenry, can prevent a natural calamity from becoming a total disaster.  There is such a thing after all as disaster risk reduction, prevention and preparedness even before and apart from rescue, relief and rehabilitation. This much has been proven not just by advanced capitalist countries such as Japan but even more convincingly and heroically by resource-poor, socialist countries such as Cuba.

Concrete proof of the Aquino administration’s shortsightedness is the presidential veto on budget allocations for disaster preparedness, specifically “pre-disaster activities such as preparation of relocation sites/facilities and training personnel engaged in direct disaster (sic)” under the government’s calamity fund.  President Benigno S. Aquino (“B.S.” Aquino for short) irrationally put pre-emptive and mitigation measures in unnecessary conflict with requisite quick response capabilities during and immediately after a calamity when the former should be given priority attention and is actually key to the latter’s effectiveness. 

And where have the hundreds of billions of presidential and congressional pork, i.e. lump sum, discretionary funds loudly defended by “B.S.” Aquino, gone?  We all know the answer in light of the non-stop exposes of how government officials at the highest levels have diverted funds meant for disaster preparedness, relief and rehabilitation to ghost projects under the name of bogus NGOs.

Unfortunately for the victims of typhoon Yolanda in the provinces of Samar, Leyte, Cebu, Bohol, Negros provinces, Panay provinces, Palawan, Bicol and Mindoro, the Aquino regime’s “quick response” has turned out to be appallingly slow, disorganized, inadequate and even non-existent in many areas.  Contrary to “B.S.” Aquino’s constant reassurances that the government was totally prepared with pre-positioned relief goods, air/sea craft and rescue equipment standing by, more than adequate funds ready for quick disbursement and the national and local government machinery on red alert, the scene in Tacloban City, Leyte where Defense Secretary Gazmin and Local Government Secretary Roxas had set up their command center, was total chaos as late as five days after the typhoon hit.

“B.S.” Aquino was forced to eat his words only after the real situation was broadcast by local and foreign media by which time, the effete president could only harp on how local government units failed to prepare, understate the grievousness of the situation by downscaling the number of deaths and the extent of devastation, then belatedly acknowledge the destructiveness of Typhoon Yolanda in order to blame it for the “breakdown of practically everything”, thus rendering his government paralyzed to inutility.

To be fair, the government’s weather agency PAG-ASA and Project NOAH had commendably done their part by predicting with remarkable accuracy the typhoon strength, scope and path, including the height of the storm surge waters and the affected municipalities.  All these vital information was forwarded to Malacanang and all concerned government agencies as early as Nov 5, three days before the storm’s landfall.  Additionally, the scientific community – government, academe and NGOs – has repeatedly warned of vulnerabilities and hazards practically throughout the archipelago as a result of its being in the typhoon path, the Pacific Rim of Fire, and on the fault-laden Pacific trenches.

Clearly, delegating disaster preparedness and response to the local government units while allowing national funds and resources to be hijacked and misused by unscrupulous government officials amount to unconscionable criminal negligence for which there should be accountability. 

Why is it necessary to expose the truth at the risk of being labeled as inveterate critics and naysayers? Because government is lying and covering up.  Because government has to be pushed to act rather than drag its feet. Because government has to be unmasked for its failures, its anti-people policies and programs that have caused so much misery, deaths and destroyed lives.  Or else continue in this vicious cycle.

This is not a pointless exercise. This doesn’t go against mobilizing non-government efforts to make up for the patchy and woefully inadequate government response. This is not so-called Filipino “crab mentality” at work.  Shining a light on the ugly, dark reality of government ineptness, corruption and deception especially in times of national emergencies is a necessary step to breaking the vicious cycle.

Just as there is a welcome and heartening surfeit of compassion and aid locally and from abroad, there is also no lack of prescriptions on disaster preparedness as well as relief and rehabilitation response. All of these prescriptions are not only correct but also long overdue. Most of them are not even new.

All are derived from lessons from disasters here and abroad, paid for by the blood and tears of countless victims, mostly the poor and vulnerable.  The more crucial question then is why have these prescriptions not been put in place, given the perennial incidence of these tragedies?

It is now all too obvious that the answer does not lie in satellite images, sensors and forecasts, much less in grandiose plans, presentations and media statements.

The answer lies in the political will of government, to first of all lift the large mass of Filipinos from poverty that makes them most vulnerable to these calamities, and second to see to it that all available information and knowledge -- from scientific data to lessons learned from past experiences -- are used to devise and implement national as well as local plans and measures to mitigate if not avoid massive loss of lives, dislocation and destruction.  #

Published in Business World
22-23 November 2013


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