Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Flooded

This was my column on the date indicated above.This post is antedated.

A friend who was recently on board a plane that passed through Central Luzon told me that he almost broke into tears when he saw the extent of the flooding from high up. It looked really sad and desolate, he said. Large swathes of Luzon looked like giant lakes and in many parts one could only make out a few forlorn-looking roofs and the tips of some trees protruding from the waters.

We know the flooding in Central Luzon in the last few days has been the worst we’ve seen so far. We know this because we have seen the pictures, we have viewed the videos, and we have heard the plaintive cries for help and deliverance from thousands of victims - many of them soaking wet to the bones, hungry and thirsty, and with fear and panic written all over their faces.

I saw this video of a grandmother who was rescued after having been trapped inside her house for two days while the floodwaters were rising around her. She couldn’t articulate her feelings; there were simply no words to express the pain, the terror, and the helplessness. In the end, all she could say in a voice trembling with unspoken pain, “Tulungan nyo kami, parang awa nyo na” (have mercy, please help us).

We’ve seen pictures of various animals stranded on roofs. One such picture ended up occupying almost a third of the front page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer. It showed what seemed like an idyllic tableau of a dog, two cats, some chicken and ducks stranded on a roof (they were eventually rescued, thanks to the efforts of animal rights activists who weren’t amused at the picture). Although we’ve also seen images of people wading in the floods while tightly clutching in their arms their beloved pets, we have been told the rescue teams could only take in people, not animals. I dread the thought of how many animals—farm animals and domestic pets—drowned in the whole of Luzon.

We saw right in the front page of this newspaper a picture of a funeral procession being made across floodwaters, the coffin perilously perched on top of a boat. We are a people who honor our dead, come hell or high water. We learned that at least 59 people had perished in Central Luzon alone due to the flooding. And the numbers continue to rise. At least 16 villages in the town of Calumpit in Bulacan remain inaccessible as I write this column; we don’t know what has happened in those villages.

We heard stories of how mothers gave birth at the height of the flooding; some of them forced to immediately get up from their recovery beds and made to ride makeshift boats just so they could get to an evacuation center. One mother rode on a soft drink cooler while her newborn floated alongside on a washbasin. Thousands of children were cramped in evacuation centers, many of them eventually contracting colds, cough, and other diseases. In a bridge somewhere in Pampanga, a community of Badjaos took over a bridge and turned it into their temporary shelter, much to the dismay of the townspeople who want them evicted and sent back to wherever they came from.

The flooding has brought to the surface the extent of our problems in the area of population management. We’re seeing far too many children growing up under dangerous environments just because their parents don’t have access to reproductive health information and services. And as we pondered on the phenomenon, we heard that the Senate President has just expressed the opinion that even masturbation is a crime; it constitutes abortion. In a country where far too many children are growing up without access to basic care, education, and other necessities, he thinks sperm cells are alive and exist only for one single purpose—to mate with a female egg.

Meanwhile, everyone is talking about forced evacuation in the event of calamities and disasters such heavy flooding. Our leaders debate over the wisdom of forcing people to leave their homes to relocate temporarily to God knows where. Nobody seems to notice that the evacuation centers—actually, classrooms—are hardly habitable anymore. These structures were not meant to be live-in headquarters of thousands of people. The mayor of Calumpit was heard on television chastising people who have been talking non-stop about evacuating people from the flooded areas—“with what and to where?” he asked. He said it would take 200 rubber boats to transport 20,000 people. Nobody had that many boats. And where would the 20,000 evacuees stay? In this country, talk is cheap.

And so once again, there are many of us who have expressed annoyance over the stubbornness of people who refused to leave their homes even when the floodwaters were rising. How could they put their lives at risk just so they could protect a few worldly possessions, we openly wonder. Actually I am aghast that there are people who actually ask the question. Some of us don’t just get it. For the very poor, a few plates and glasses, a television set perhaps, and a few chairs and tables represent their only claim to respectability. Many of them saved up for their television sets for years! This might not make sense to those who preach from their air-conditioned cars while sipping their designer coffee, but there are people in this country who take their slippers off when wading through mud because they don’t want their slippers to get soiled or destroyed. If their feet get wounded, at least it would heal, they reason out; but where in the world will they find the money to buy a new pair of slippers? How can one argue with poverty?

As usual, the search for someone to blame has started and many of our leaders have jumped into the quest with guns blazing and tempers on full throttle. What caused the flooding? Why didn’t we evacuate people at once? Why are the relief goods taking so long to arrive at the evacuation sites? What is taking the floodwaters too long to recede? Where is the President in the midst of all the chaos?

What is clear now is that the flooding was not directly caused by rainfall spawned by Typhoons Pedring and Quiel. Experts said the rains generated by the two typhoons did not reach 30 percent of the volume of rain released by Ondoy two years ago. What caused the massive flooding was the fact that all six dams in Luzon released water almost at the same time. Apparently, the people responsible for the dams did not coordinate with each other. As usual, the problem boils down to lack of coordination at the top levels.

But there are other factors that need to be taken into account. An expert from the University of the Philippines has pointed out that Pampanga and Bulacan are actually sinking every year because of the presence of too many deep wells in the area. It seems people are simply digging up wells unaware of the consequences to Mother Nature. There’s also the problem of rivers and canals and other floodways being overly silted and virtually blocked by garbage. And yes, our mountains are almost bald so their capacity to absorb water has also been severely reduced. What goes around comes around. In the end, we all know the search for someone to blame will eventually lead back to us.

The President of the Republic has not deigned to shake hands with the flood victims or even hand out a few token relief goods to the families who have suddenly found themselves homeless. We are told the President does not want to take away focus from the victims and is shying away from photo-ops. To this day, I still couldn’t believe that at a time of great tragedy when leadership by example is badly needed, when actual presence of the president is required to boost sagging spirits or to communicate concern, all the bright boys at the Palace could think about was politics?

This is the Philippines. We see the best and the worst during crises.

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