In the direct path of the typhoon belt and constantly under the heavy monsoon clouds, the Philippines, the tropical country in the edge of the Pacific, is in a rather tight corner in terms of weather events. And within a span of five years, we have been experiencing extreme events such as long droughts, heat waves, and severe storms.
Unfortunately, this seems to be the new normal now. Last 2009 the National Capital Region as well as the surrounding provinces suffered a deluge brought about by the tropical storm Ondoy. Last year, the southern cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan were flooded when Mindanao was suddenly passed by the tropical storm Sendong. Now, we have a heavy rainshower with no name and which has lasted for about five days now, and it has brought back the specter of Ondoy on Metro Manila, that of rampaging flood waters down the streets and alleys of this crowded region of 15 million Filipinos. Major floods are cyclical, in 5 to 100 year periods, but having a few “once every hundred years” flooding within two years is something really attention-grabbing.
It’s quite depressing to see in the television the constant flashing of scenes of people clinging for dear life, shivering in the rooftops, huddling in evacuation centers, and the like. There is a high degree of certainty that these scenarios are sure to become regular in the years to come. Such disasters have a series of repercussions: paralyzed public/private institutions, delayed schedules, damaged and lost properties, personal stress and trauma, as well as the huge financial losses in cleanup, repair, business shutdowns and personal wages.
Naturally, in moments of despair people would look for scapegoats to place the blame of this calamity: an incompetent president, an unreliable weather bureau, a corrupt legislature, shortsighted city planners, pestering informal settlers, or even a vindictive God. Whether or not those in the list are largely to blame, one thing is for sure: we ALL have a hand on it, intentional or not. Even I am party to this crime against earth. I would just like to clarify that the following analysis is not some blame game. Rather, it is a neutral write-up that would hopefully serve as a wake-up call for all of us.
It’s quite impossible to clearly delineate the environmental follies of man, given the complexity and number of factors involved. For a start, most of our cities and towns are badly planned in terms of zoning, drainage, and the like. The city and municipal planners seem to disregard the readily available geohazard maps which detail the landslide and flood prone areas, and the local governments don’t have the political will to enforce critical plans such as relocation of people, construction regulation on some areas, and dismantling of some structures. The famous Daniel Burnham who designed the master plan of downtown Chicago and Washington, D.C. also came to the Philippines more than a century ago to design the cities of Manila and Baguio. Sadly, these plans never bore fruit.
In the political world, the politicians who seemingly don’t look beyond their three/six year terms blatantly tolerate the unregulated growth of informal settlers’ population among the various areas of the metropolis to ensure their voting base. Besides the accompanying crime and poverty, these informal settlers clog the waterways and pollute the rivers with their human and material wastes. Also, waterways are essentially risk areas when it comes to flooding, and with the congestion of informal settlers on such places, disaster is sure to follow.
The government has made some measures to relocate informal settlers, but some of these are ill-planned as the relocation areas are hazard prone. Now, why is the National Capital Region heavily congested? People from the provinces come to the metropolis in search of employment, sacrificing the good and simple life in their hometowns. We can’t blame these folks, the Philippines has a skewed economy as Metro Manila accounts for a third of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In short, the money is in Manila, and not in some rural region. Now add the factor of people uneducated on proper family planning, and we have a population bomb on our laps.
Back to the aspect of zoning and urban growth, we have raped our forests and populated the riverbanks. The trees are there for a reason, to absorb water and hold the ground. The flood plains and natural catch basins are called as such since they are naturally flooded in a seasonal manner. People move in to flood plains and cry for help when it rains. But then again, it’s not really their fault since its property developers who created these subdivisions, buildings, and townhouses. How did these construction firms get away with it? It comes back again to the city and municipal planners and those darned hazard maps. Since urban growth is inevitable and permanent, measures should have been done to avoid possible problems such as spillways, dredging, pumping stations, dikes, among others. How come these are still not enough or that some plans going as far back as the 70’s remain in the drawing boards? It comes back again to the politicians and powers that be.
Then there’s climate change. The insatiable greed of the western world in the past few centuries has enclosed our planet with greenhouse gases and it cannot be helped, lest our global economy, which stands on oil, collapse. With the obvious change in weather events, third world countries such as ours are bound to suffer due to exposure to extreme drought or unusually severe thunderstorms. With the seas rising at approximately 3 millimeters per year due to the melting ice caps, and parts of Manila literally having sunk several feet below sea level due to water table depletion by deep wells, what would happen next is a no-brainer.
Really depressing, right?
Do we have a right to blame the above listed? Not really. We put our leaders there in the first place, we throw cigarette butts and candy wrappers on the ground thinking that no harm would come from such teeny bit of a litter, we don’t heed the words of the wise to curb our population growth in the face of ever shrinking resources, we just half-heartedly recycle and conserve, and most of all, we just let the days pass by without even taking initiative to push the government or educate the people. We simply think that “some guy/agency is assigned to do that, it doesn’t concern me.” In the end, when we face disaster, we blame that “some guy/agency” for all our ills. When the government does one thing, people complain. When the government does the alternative, people still complain. Filipinos are naturally a complaining and never satisfied people.
Guess what, we are in a web, we’re all in this together. To blame the government, to blame the president, to blame the informal settlers, to blame the capitalists, to blame the church… means we are blaming ourselves.
We have to face this new reality of disasters head-on, there’s not much choice concerning it anyway. We have to stop merely criticizing from the comfort of our laptops in the web, and start acting by being more environmentally concerned and by sharing what we have with those in need, whether it be financial, logistical, or by our other talents. Our country has for too long been suffering from strife and discord, unity is our utmost need right now.
With all our follies and disasters, it’s about time we give finger-pointing a break, and simply seek help from one another. After all, no man is an island. And with this climate change, all small islands sink.
You can view the Flood Hazard Map of Manila created by the Philippine Mines and Geosciences Bureau. If you’re interested in viewing specific various areas, you can check the Philippine Landslide & Flood Maps at the Philippine Information Agency. If you’re Googlemap-savvy, you can check out the Regional Flood Maps of the Nababaha.com site.