A disaster-prone country like the Philippines should by now be a nation of experts on calamities and how to deal with them. But, as Ondoy has shown, Filipinos are almost always caught unawares. And often, the high cost of these calamities are caused not so much by lack of knowledge or resources as by poor governance.
By CARLOS H. CONDE
MANILA – In a Third World country like the Philippines, it is probably not surprising that the poor are always the first to suffer the worst of any disaster. The havoc that Ondoy (Ketsana) wrought the past week not only added to their suffering – it underscored the reality that interventions to mitigate the impact of calamities hardly work, if at all, for the poor.
“Poor people in much of the world are constantly threatened by the variability of the weather that they experience from year to year,” said a report last year by the United Nations Development Program.
“Poor people have become very good at adapting to the vicissitudes of their weather,” it said. Unfortunately, the report added, they “are already close to the limits of their capacities to cope, and the added effects of climate change may push them beyond their coping capacities unless real efforts are made to prepare for changes in climate.”
A disaster-prone country like the Philippines – it is battered by storms and typhoons at least 20 times a year; volcanic eruptions, landslides and earthquakes are fairly common – should by now be a nation of experts on calamities and how to deal with them. But, as Ondoy has shown, Filipinos are almost always caught unawares. And often, the high cost of these calamities are caused not so much by lack of knowledge or resources as by poor governance.
“We were all caught by surprise,” Gwendolyn Pang, secretary-general of the Philippine National Red Cross, told Bulatlat in an interview.
Pang’s assessment may baffle many. After all, Pagasa, the country’s weather bureau, had issued warnings on Ondoy as early as Thursday last week, even raising alert levels the next day. The warnings had been unheeded. It is understandable for the poor not to immediately vacate their homes. The same cannot be said of the government’s apparent failure to anticipate the magnitude of the calamity.
As a result, while Ondoy did affect severely the middle class and the rich, the poor suffered much more greatly. (Read sidebar: Tales of Woe from Those Who Had It Worse). Even cities that prided themselves with orderliness and disaster preparedness proved unable to cope with the ravages of Ondoy. (Read sidebar: In Marikina, Ondoy Shatters a Myth)
To be sure, the volume of rain Ondoy poured on Metro Manila and several nearby provinces was unusually large – a month’s worth of rain in just 12 hours, the most since 1967 – and experts said Metro Manila would have been inundated anyway even if it had the best sewerage and drainage system in the world.
“There are not enough infrastructures to cope with the problem of high volume of precipitation,” said Arjun Thapan, the director-general of the Southeast Asia department of the Asian Development Bank (ADB), which has been financing programs in the region to improve sewerage and drainage systems. But, he added in an interview, “no matter how sufficient the system is, it was probably not enough to handle” the flooding of Metro Manila.
“Even if the infrastructures were in place, it would still be overwhelming,” said Anthony Golez, the vice-chairman of the National Disaster Coordinating Council. He defended the government by saying that it had always been prepared for calamities. But, he added, “Let me put it this way: We were preparing for an Intensity 7 earthquake but Intensity 8 came.”
Critics may chafe at Golez’s statement but what is not in dispute is that Ondoy’s toll could have been much lesser had government agencies and local governments done enough preparations and had they not been merely reactive, as one expert put it. Metro Manila, after all, is a disaster waiting to happen.