When will we step up to squarely facing the challenge of overcoming what has tormented us for the longest time? Thousands of Filipino lives have been lost and millions of dollars in property damage sustained as a result of disasters caused by weather disturbances common in the region. Much of what contributes to the devastation is the result of years of neglect and lack of foresight. Measures need to be taken now to reduce the impact to lives and property of future natural calamities. Rather than see ourselves as helpless victims of the forces of nature, we need to appreciate that there are significant components of the problem that are man-made and therefore potentially solvable.
The following diagram illustrates the key points where careless human activity contributes to exacerbating the destruction wreaked by the many cyclones and bouts of torrential rains that visit the Philippines every year.
Denuded forests fail to trap rainwater.
As a result, downflow from the highlands during heavy rains is torrential and further erodes the already degraded landscape. Furthermore, this erosion results in sediment getting continually dumped into rivers and waterways further reducing their capacity to drain stormwater in times of heavy rain.
What were once floodplains have been developed for dense human habitation.
Felino Palafox Jr, who is a leading architect in Manila and long-time environmental “crusader” had his views on the recent flooding disaster brought about by typhoon Ondoy reported by the ManilaTimes.net:
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 those where disaster preparedness should be done. There development should be restricted and proceed only when certain protective measures have been taken. That is because these locations are threatened with disastrous flooding, earthquakes and possible changes in topography.
Various recommendations to build floodways and spillways to support high-risk areas were never heeded by Metro Manila’s urban planners. Much of the property development along flood-prone areas should not have been undertaken to begin with.
Both storm water and raw sewage feed into waterways that are clogged with garbage and other solid residential and industrial waste.
A joint study conducted in 1998 by the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) forecast the volume of waste generated by Metro Manila will double between 2010 and 2020. This means that this is an issue that will not only not go away, it will get worse unless:
– Attitudes towards garbage disposal change; and,
– Waste management systems are improved.
Amando Doronilla in an eyewitness account of the destruction left by floods in the wake of cyclone Ondoy observed as he toured Quezon City after some of the water had subsided:
On Rodriguez Avenue, for example, there were walls of garbage swept by the floods. The canals and esteros that crossed underneath the avenue were swollen with garbage to their banks. This debris did not come from climate change. The mountain of rubbish was discharged by human hands—over many generations
Even if flash floods don’t kill Metro Manilans, pollution and the destruction of food fish populations in lakes and rivers surrounding and lacing the city will. Many urban poor communities depend on these both directly for food and indirectly as trading commodities.
Limited road access to urban poor communities and gated subdivisions hamper relief operations in times of calamity.
Many residential enclaves implement security measures that severely limit public access. Each “subdivision” maintains separate feeder roads into main roads traversed by public vehicles and non-residents but have no alternative routes (through roads) that cut through them and bypass the usually traffic-congested main arteries.
Rather than building walls in between ourselves, we should be tearing them down and moving towards a more open society with a sense of civic duty that extends beyond our immediate families, clans, and “village associations”.
Emergency services are not coordinated and are staffed by inadequately trained and equipped personnel.
Greg Bankoff in Cultures of disaster: society and natural hazard in the Philippines (Routledge, 2003) concluded how generally inadequate emergency preparedness in the Philippines is, citing lack of expertise in management, coordination and responsiveness as key weaknesses. The sorry state of the services was clearly evident in the aftermath of a major earthquake that devastated the city of Baguio in 1990. Bankoff writes:
[…] many affected areas were left without adequate assistance in spite of the tremendous public response, the convergence of volunteer and rescue teams from all over the nation, and the donation of considerable amounts ofn food. Some people remained buried in buildings and landslides for over a week, while food shortages resulted from transportation mismanagement.
Indeed, the response of government services to the Ondoy disaster today failed to demonstrate any form of improvement since 1990 as Doronilla now observes:
From the first hours of the flood, the government failed to exist. The army and police were caught off-guard. They ran out of inflated rubber boats to rescue people stranded in their homes or carried away by floodwaters.
It’s time we see our vulnerability to natural calamities as a system of contributing factors. It is only when we approach solving the problem of chronic flooding with holistic and systemic solutions that sustainable improvements in our quality of life will be achieved. An important aspect of this resolve is ensuring that our future leaders are up to the task.