By Martin Benedict Perez
Tropical Storm “Ondoy” (international codename: Ketsana) poured a month’s amount of rain in six hours on Metro Manila and neighboring provinces last Sept. 26. It would later turn out to be the worst flooding the country has seen in 40 years.
According to the latest data from the National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC), the storm left 293 dead and 42 missing, mostly in Manila, Calabarzon, and Central Luzon. Moreover, a total of 629,466 families or over three million people were affected in 1,368 barangays. Many of the victims are currently temporarily sheltered in more than 500 overpopulated and undermanned evacuation centers. Damage to property caused by the storm has reached at least P5.1 billion, with P1.9 billion from infrastructure damage including 4, 270 houses totally destroyed and 5,933 houses partially destroyed and P3.2 billion from damage to rice fields, fish pens, and other agri-businesses.
‘Ondoy’ is now among the most devastating storms our country has seen. In 1991, Tropical Storm ‘Uring’ caused the death of more than 6,000 people mostly in Ormoc City, Leyte, and wrought P10 billion in damages. In 1995 there was Super Typhoon ‘Rosing’ which crossed Calabarzon and Metro Manila, leaving more than 900 dead and another P10 billion in damages. What is worth noting about ‘Ondoy’ is the amount and intensity of its rainfall. In six hours, it deposited 341.3 milliliters of rainfall, an amount comparable to the 24-hour rainfall of 1967.
Government officials and experts are sounding the climate change alarm. Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Lito Atienza said, “The alarm bells are ringing. This is climate change. The unprecedented amount of water that we saw over the weekend would not be the first and last. It will happen over and over again unless we take the necessary steps to help our environment.”
True, global warming is one cause of the massive flooding. The increasing greenhouse gas concentrations resulting from human activity such as fossil fuel burning and deforestation have caused most of the observed temperature increase since the middle of the 20th century. While it is the industrialized countries that are the major contributors to greenhouse emissions, it is the poor countries that bear the brunt of the consequences.
Then there is urbanization, or more precisely, the inability of the Philippine government to adopt measures to address the problems brought about by the rapid development of an area, such as increased economic activity and concentration of a large number of people in urban centers, which in turn give rise to pollution, congestion, squatting, breakdown of infrastructure facilities and the collapse of health, educational and social services.
To be sure, no country is immune from natural disasters but it is the government’s level of preparedness and ability to address and mitigate nature’s wrath that define effective governance. Sadly, our government only plays lip service to the concept of preparedness. All too often, it simply reacts to situations. It lacks foresight and is often mired in petty bureaucratic clutter, scandals, political intramural and business-as-usual mentality.
Internationally known architect and urban planner Felino Palafox Jr. resurrects an old master plan for Metro Manila to illustrate the government’s utter lack of political will and appreciation of long-term planning.
“We are always reacting to crisis. It bothered me when I saw these reports and pictures and people are saying it’s an act of God. It’s not,” said Palafox. “It’s us not following the plans and proposals. If you are an urban planner, an environmental planner, these have been planned as early as 1905. When I saw the damage caused by the floods recently, I realized that these were the same areas that had already been identified.”
Palafox said a 1977 World Bank-funded study identified Marikina Valley, the western shores of Laguna de Bay, and the Manila Bay coastal area as among development areas that should prepare for flooding, earthquakes and possible changes in topography.
The Metro Manila Transport, Land Use and Development Planning Project (Metroplan) was designed as a blueprint for urban planning developers and government agencies. Unfortunately, he said, corruption and lack of planning led to the shelving of many of the plan’s recommendations.
“You see the irony here. National government agencies are aware that there is a flooding level of so many meters, then another national government agency would approve subdivision plans for only nine-meter high houses. There are about 32 signatures to obtain just to do a development project. It’s like an obstacle course,” he said in an ANC television interview on Sept. 29.
“There was supposed to be a Parañaque spillway to flush out the excess water to the Laguna Bay and South China Sea, but this was never done. It was part of the recommendation,” he said.
Palafox said that the study had already noted the possibility of heavy flooding in at least three sites of urban growth in the Philippine capital—the Marikina Valley and its northern and southern parts. “Government knows what the flood lines are. Why did developers of subdivisions allow construction of housing projects below the flood lines?” he asked.
Palafox advocates the construction of more high rise or even stilted settlements, and yet there are hardly any requirements or incentives to push for high-rise socialized housing. This has contributed to the growth of slums in the urban areas. Unfortunately, it is the poor who are most vulnerable to natural disasters.
The government also sadly fails even on the matter of acquiring necessary gadgets for such a necessary task as weather forecasting. The Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) is often at the mercy of its critics whenever crises hit. The usual refrain is that fatalities and damages could have been minimized if PAGASA had the proper instruments to track down weather disturbances. The Doppler radar, for example, can measure the amount of expected, which will be used to issue flood warnings.
The Doppler radar was ordered some five years back but for unknown reasons the equipment finally be installed only this December. It was only in 2005, after ‘Uring’ devastated Ormoc in 1991 and ‘Rosing’ ran through Manila in 1995, that the National Disaster Coordinating Council drafted a high priority action plan to modernize PAGASA, 20 years after the Doppler came into the market.
Likewise, a quick note about the government’s calamity fund. About P2 billion is allocated every year for disaster operations but the fund can only be used only when a State of Calamity is declared. But there is no similar fund for disaster readiness. Such allocation will have to vie for a place in the annual budget of national, provincial, and local governments, and oftentimes it is waylaid by other pressing and more lucrative (read, graft-prone) projects.
Finally, every one of us must share part of the blame. It is time we realized that our government is only as strong, vigilant and responsible as its citizens. No plans and programs can deliver the desired result without the full cooperation and involvement of the citizenry. We are all responsible for that stray plastic bag that found its way to the sewers and impede the flow of water, and the noxious fumes from our cars that cause global warming. We must share the blame for electing corrupt officials who pocket the meager resources allocated for flood control and for turning a blind eye to the continued denudation of our forests and the uncontrolled real estate development. Our litany of sins goes on and on.
Images of hapless victims and muddied and crumbling homes crushed our hearts. Stories of volunteers and heroes inspired us to hope for a better day. We heard the question repeated many times: “Why did God allow for this to happen?” Some have suggested that the disaster was punishment for the sins of the Arroyo administration.
But if there is a sin here, it is the sin of human omission. Course corrections need to be set. What people mistakenly focus on in the story of Noah are the people cast away to die in the deluge for their sins and excesses. We need to talk about Noah in the proper context. He was set out to do an impossible task, but he survived. He was rewarded with a new day and a promise that the world will not fall again by His hand.
Thus it can only be by ours, and so our work must begin now.