By BENJIE OLIVEROS
It is no longer raining hard in Metro Manila and in most parts of the country. The skies are cloudy, rain showers are intermittent and hardly a cause for concern. That is why the damage wrought by the monsoon rains three to four weeks ago has almost been forgotten, except by those who continue to wade through floods, such as those living by the shores of Laguna de Bay and in parts of Malabon and Valenzuela, and by those who are struggling to rise up from the deeper debts of poverty that the floods made them sink in. So now it appears that the Aquino administration and the local governments most affected by the floods have moved on to other concerns. It seems that only the weather bureau Pagasa that keeps on reminding us that we have not seen the end of it.
But we should not allow this complacency to happen again and again, until the next disaster strikes. Otherwise, the government would be blaming the people again when the next typhoon strikes. And when El Niño arrives, it would blame nature and then the people for wasting water.
For one, we still have two months of rain ahead of us. After two months, Pagasa predicts that we would experience the other extreme, El Niño, from the last quarter of the year to the first quarter of 2013. So it is quite disconcerting to see the government not continuing to prepare the country and trying to reduce the vulnerabilities of people.
The country has been experiencing disasters since time immemorial. The Philippines is within the Pacific rim of fire, sits on not just one earthquake fault, and is within the path of typhoons. And yet, year in and year out, the government acts a mere days before the predicted typhoon, even dredging the sewerage system during the height of typhoons and floods. Year in and year out, floods have sunk people deeper into poverty, lives have been lost, and damage to property amounts to millions of pesos.
It is true that the effects of typhoons have become more intense. When Ondoy inundated large parts of Metro Manila, Central Luzon and Southern Tagalog in 2009, people said it was a freak of nature. A friend of mine whose business machines were inundated said that, although he has been living around the area of flood-prone Araneta Avenue for years, it has never happened before that floods have submerged the first floor of his office and it might not happen again for many years. That was until a few weeks ago when there was not even a typhoon and yet the same devastating effects happened.
The favorite whipping boy of the Aquino government is Pagasa, often blaming it for late or inaccurate predictions. It has also been blaming squatters who live along canals, rivers, under bridges and along floodways. The Aquino administration even threatened to blow up their houses to make them leave. Local governments have also been blaming people living in fragile environments for refusing to evacuate. And their last line of defense is that typhoons are natural calamities thus, they could not do anything about it.
A lot of environmentalists are blaming human activities that cause damage to the environment thus, resulting in climate change. Well, it is true that the effects of climate change are already staring us in the face, with more frequent extreme weather disturbances. But this does not excuse the government from its responsibility to prepare and reduce the vulnerabilities of people.
The name of the national government agency dealing with disasters has been changed from the National Disaster Response Coordinating Committee to National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council. But that is as far as the change went, a change in name.
It is not Pagasa that is to blame for the disasters, although the accuracy and timeliness of its reports could help prepare people. Nor is it the poor who are to blame, they are the victims. Poverty, specifically the lack of means to be able to live in safe and secure environments, is the biggest vulnerability of all. One could not also blame the poor for trying to secure their meager belongings even to the extent of putting their lives at risk by refusing to evacuate.
It is an oft-repeated line but the responsibility to prepare the people and reduce their vulnerabilities falls on the lap of the government. But how could the Aquino government prepare the people when it even reduced its budget for disaster preparedness? How could it act effectively when it has simplistically reduced the issue of preparedness to the timely and accurate reporting of Pagasa?
NGOs are doing better by making communities draw up hazard maps and preparedness plans, organizing disaster preparedness committees, conducting disaster preparedness trainings, and enabling them to negotiate with local governments for better policies and measures, and for accessing resources. But the resources and reach of NGOs are very limited and the direct impact of its efforts very micro. To make up for this, it is engaging in advocacy efforts.
It is the government that has the resources, infrastructure, and responsibility to do these things on a nationwide scale.
But how could the Aquino government effectively address the vulnerabilities of the people, especially the poor, when its centerpiece program, public-private partnership projects, has been displacing communities – giving them the hard choice to either live in more unsafe, and un-secure environments or accept relocation in remote villages away from sources of livelihood, without support services, and also prone to floods and erosion? How could it mitigate the impact of extreme weather disturbances when its economic thrusts allow the wanton destruction of the environment to attract foreign investments in extractive industries such as large-scale mining for export? How could it mitigate the impact of climate change when it has been allowing powerful political clans and their foreign partners to clear forests in the name of profit and development?
NGOs focusing on relief and rehabilitation efforts used to distinguish between natural calamities and man-made disasters – often referring to militarization and its concomitant forcible displacement of communities. But I think this is no longer accurate now.
Typhoons and extreme weather disturbances, as well as volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, are indeed the works of nature, but disasters are not. These are the works of men, specifically by the few in power because of their greed for profit and their corrupt ways.