As I write this column, Typhoon Ulysses has transformed Cagayan and Isabela, the home province of my mother, into an ocean of tears and tragedy. Prior to its arrival, the typhoon ravaged towns and cities already reeling from the devastation caused by super-typhoon Rolly. The path of destruction coursed through Metro Manila and nearby provinces visited by Ondoy more than 10 years ago, its leavings as deadly and as tragic.
Since the 1970s, plans have been available to address the problem of flooding, especially in Metro Manila. Yet with every change in administration, these plans have been either discarded or left to rot, treated more as remnants of a past that needs to be discarded rather than long-term strategies to address persistent problems.
Flood-mitigating measures prepared during the Marcos years were not implemented during the succeeding regimes. A program to desilt Laguna Lake, funded by the Belgian government, was cancelled plainly out of a misplaced and unfounded perception that it was tainted by corruption. The international lawsuit that came as a result, decided in favor of the Belgian government, was costly and totally unnecessary. In the same vein, the past administration’s emphasis on technology to upgrade weather science, hazard mapping, and disaster readiness suffered the same fate under the present dispensation.
In many respects, it was Ondoy in 2009 that awoke the people and our government leaders to the devastating consequences of climate change. It underscored the urgency of employing the vast array of policy and executive options to mitigate the effects of climate change on the population and the economy.
While progress has been made in some areas, much work still needs to be done. Local governments are now more prepared to deal with typhoons and other natural calamities, their capabilities only constrained by their financial resources. The mismatch, it would appear, is with national agencies seen as slow to act.
Certain areas that are historically considered flood plains where housing settlements should be discouraged had been identified decades ago. Yet these areas have been taken over by subdivisions, private developers, and urban poor communities. There has been no deliberate effort, no exercise of political will, to ensure that these areas are cleared of human habitation.
We have a preponderance of environmental laws, but there are shortcomings, if not negligence, in its implementation. Watersheds are supposed to be protected from activities such as quarrying and logging, yet images of these prohibited activities have been circulating even before typhoon Ulysses.
We are a signatory to international frameworks and covenants on climate change. Accession to these accords is always welcome for it signifies a commitment to shared concepts and values. Still, these commitments are bereft of meaning if unaccompanied by concrete actions at the basic level. Foremost is the protection of our environment.
The role of government is to temper the advance of private interests on our natural resources, to ensure that these resources are ably protected such that everyone can benefit from its bounty. When government becomes complicit in its ravaging, or is inept in ensuring its protection, the people pay the ultimate price.
Zoning and land use plans exist to maintain harmony within the ecosystem. They are a means by which the authorities regulate private activities, especially those that are harmful to the environment. They are also intended to protect residents from danger by identifying high-risk areas and placing habitation away from danger zones. Zoning and land use plans must strive for development that is both balanced, inclusive, and sustainable. This will help dissuade the rise of slum communities where people from outside the economic centers, drawn by the prevalence of employment opportunities, live under conditions that are harmful to their health and pose risks to the environment.
Every strong typhoon or natural disaster leaves behind lessons. In the deep sense of loss and trauma, the country undergoes a collective reappraisal of their past actions. Governments and experts are quick to point out and even admit shortcomings, and propose solutions. Lessons have been identified, yes. But these lessons were never retained.
And while government leaders recommit themselves by words to the cause of fighting climate change, the gaps in between the seasons lull us into a false sense of complacency. We fail to hold the authorities accountable. That is until the next tragedy hits, and we find ourselves once again imploring the heavens to save us from the shortcomings of man. This should not be our curse, or our fate.