Monday, August 20, 2007

The blame game

“Be careful what you pray for, it might just happen.” This admonition has been top of mind lately for very obvious reasons. We prayed for deliverance from the long drought and the impending water crisis. Thereafter, three typhoons played catch around us, pulled the monsoon rains, and well, you know what happened next.

It’s been a very drenching week. Classes have been suspended since Wednesday last week and since today is a holiday, this means schoolchildren have been on vacation for six straight days now. If we take into account the other Mondays that have become holidays as well because of this administration’s holiday economics wrinkle, we’re all looking at a lot of school days to be made up for. There is now talk of make up classes on weekends. Vacations do come with strings attached. It’s payback time soon.

Our desperation for the rains led us to do many things. We prayed hard, performed rain dances, even spent millions in cloud seeding operations. We came this close to making sacrificial offerings to the gods.

We did everything except the one thing that should have been done: Prepare for the deluge. It can only be one of two things. Despite our claims to piety, we must be a people of little faith. Or we simply have leaders that really stink, big time.

So when the rains did come, the usual problems surfaced. Streets became flooded because, darn it, our drainage systems turned out to be clogged.

Schoolchildren got stranded in schools and eventually got drenched going home because the bureaucrats who were supposed to make that crucial decision about suspension of classes fouled up. And worse, when they tried to make amends by deciding early on to suspend classes for the following day, it turned out to be a wrong call as that day turned out to be sunny. We also got reacquainted with the embarrassing state of our weather monitoring technologies.

And to cap it all off, we got caught in the blame trap as everyone went into full defensive mood, fault-finding, finger-pointing, bickering, carping, backbiting, chiding, scolding instead of focusing on finding solutions for the mess.

Metro Manila’s flood problem has gone from bad to worse. At the height of the deluge last Friday, parts of Metro Manila that do not usually get flooded became submerged in water. The flood level at the usual low areas became alarming—the flood at certain parts in Metro Manila was waist deep.

And strangely, I seem to have recalled the Metro Manila Development Authority making claims about having fixed the drainage systems just a few months ago. The guys at MMDA can regurgitate all the usual justifications, but there is no escaping the fact that their efforts, if there were any at all, were palpak (total failure).

It is a good thing we can still find something amusing about our flood problem. We chortled that the President got stuck in traffic for hours or that film director Quentin Tarantino was forced to ride a tricycle to Malacañang. But really, it is not funny anymore.

In times like these, one can’t help but find some comfort even from the ramblings of the irrepressible Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago. The senator went ballistic last week and called for the sacking of mayors who fail to fix the drainage problem in their respective municipalities. The suggestion borders on delusional because we all know it will never happen; but at least it puts some perspective into the problem. We need to strengthen accountability in our country.

The President has crowed in her last two State-of-the-Nation Addresses about how infrastructures would become her legacy. Many people in Metro Manila would happily settle for a drainage system that works, in lieu of all those grandiose projects.

The rains and the subsequent flooding highlighted another problem that has been haunting us for many years now. This matter of who should (and when to) declare suspension of classes. This problem seems insignificant compared to our other major headaches but it tugs at our hearts because, really, we can all grin and bear the aggravations brought about by the incompetence of our bureaucrats but we do want to spare our children from all that. If we can’t keep our children safe, what does that make all of us?

As a parent and teacher, I find this problem really annoying. What rankles is that we’ve always had this problem every single time there is a deluge but up to this time there has been no satisfactory solution. There is always a foul-up somewhere. Government people and school administrators always (as in always!) go into this silly exercise of passing on the blame to someone else “who should have made the decision.” Every single time, they end up calling a conference to sort out the confusion. And then it is back to square one.

I know that what I am about to say is something unpopular, but really, parents must also take responsibility for the problem. I empathize with the difficulties parents encounter when they have to pick up children from school in the middle of the day. But it is also exasperating when parents whine and scold others for a judgment call they also could very well have made on their own.

The truth is, many parents are just too quick to assign parenting to schoolteachers, or to media, or to government. In situations where the health and safety of their kids are concerned, parents should take the trouble to decide what is best for their children, such as not sending them to school when the heavens are pouring out. Parenting just cannot be assigned to others all the time.

And finally, there’s this perennial problem of the sorry, nay, embarrassing state of Pagasa I know that our weather forecasters are always the most convenient scapegoats. It is easy to pick on them specially when their forecasts turn out to be duds. Pagasa has become the object of jokes, but it seems that the agency is really hampered by lack of the necessary equipment to be able to do its job effectively. If this is so, then I think it makes perfect sense to prioritize budget allocations for the agency.

We are willing to spend hundreds of billions of pesos on bridges and roads and on the computerization of elections but apparently not on technology for effective monitoring of natural phenomena. For crying out loud, this is a country that get hit by all kinds of natural disasters.

To be fair, Pagasa does happen to suffer from a serious credibility problem also because of image problems. I am sure that our geologists and scientists are technically competent and hardworking. Unfortunately, this is the age of information and whether we like it or not, we do expect our bureaucrats to be mediagenic as well. I do not know the recruitment standards at Pagasa nor am I certain about the availability of manpower supply because it does seem that very few students are going into that field today (most are in nursing schools, remember?). But can’t they at least take crash courses on personality and image projection? It really does not help when weather experts are caught stammering and generally being inarticulate on public television at a time when people want clarity and assurance.

Like I’ve always said, we cannot always blame the weather. At some point, we have to take matters into our hands. It is about time we did.

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