Nation must confront the curse of typhoons

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Another typhoon, this time a devastating super-typhoon that hit the country bulls-eye. Nothing new, including the absence of a comprehensive plan of action to deal with the curse of typhoons.

Unless my editors tell me to stop, I’ll be writing every typhoon season, or after a devastating typhoon, versions of the following column I wrote July 2010 at the Philippine Daily Inquirer, right after Typhoon Basyang’s devastation. I’ll be doing so in the hope that some lawmaker or group would pick up my proposal. It argues for the enactment of a law for our nation to build the necessary infrastructure to mitigate the terrible impact of typhoons and monsoon rains on our people.

This type of hurricane is a very strong tempest, so many and so strong hitting these islands that neither Virgil nor Ovid nor any other poet I have read can describe its destructive power. These occur very often and we suffer so much, that even after experiencing them, it is difficult to believe these can happen.—F. I. Alzina, a Jesuit missionary in Philippines, 1668.

It has been the curse of our geography described as early as the 17th century. The country is not just among those hit regularly by typhoons. It is the worst hit by this terrifying natural phenomenon, in terms of both frequency of occurrence and extent of destruction.

This is based on a 2006 US government study which included such factors as damage wrought, number of people affected, and number of years in which storms occurred, to produce a “storm index,” a measure of a country’s “victimization” by typhoons for the years between 1970 and 2002. The Philippines came out with the highest storm index of 0.0370, followed by the Dominican Republic (0.0205), Jamaica and Haiti.

Bulls-eye: “Yolanda” nearly covered the entire archipelago when it hit the other day. PHOTO BY JAPAN METEOROLOGICAL AGENCY

Bulls-eye: “Yolanda” nearly covered the entire archipelago when it hit the other day. PHOTO BY JAPAN METEOROLOGICAL AGENCY

Other measures on overall climatic disasters put our country in the top ranks. The Climate Risk Index ranks our country 8th most affected by “extreme weather changes” for the period 1990 to 2008.

In the site for perfect storms
It is a fact that stares us in the face this time of the year: We are in an area in the planet which nature has sadistically made the site for perfect storms.

The archipelago is in a tropical zone facing the vast Pacific Ocean, where cyclones are generated as the warm surface temperature causes huge amounts of moist air to rise, with the water condensing at the higher, cooler altitudes. This is the reason why typhoons cannot form over waters less than 26°C. How unlucky we are: If the country were located just a few degrees nearer the equator, we would, as Indonesia and even the southern Mindanao region are, be below the usual path of typhoons that veers northward after emerging in the Pacific’s center.

Worse, our most populated and biggest island, Luzon is the first big landmass to be hit by typhoons generated in the Pacific. The Sierra Madre mountain range is too low to function as a wall to weaken the typhoons rushing from the Pacific. Typhoon tracks for two decades made by meteorologists clearly show that our country has been smack on the path of the hundreds of typhoons generated in the Pacific, at the rate of about 20 typhoons per year.

No wonder, our collective consciousness is filled by the typhoons we have experienced. Etched in the minds of each generation of Filipinos is a particular powerful typhoon. As a toddler, for me, it was the Typhoon “Lucille” in 1960 which made Retiro Street in Quezon City a gushing river, flooding the first floor of our two-story apartment. Then, it was “Yoling” in 1970, which brought so much suffering to the poor—to such an extent that it even convinced many students of that time (including myself) to join the revolution. “Ondoy” is now the unforgettable nightmare for this generation of Filipinos. Super typhoon Yolanda the other day will be the nightmare of Visayas for generations to come.

Number one concern for the nation
If typhoons and flooding have been our ancient curse, shouldn’t protecting our people from its consequences be the number one concern of the Republic?

If government can give away money to the poor totaling P85 billion (since 2008 and including the 2013 proposal) through its conditional cash-transfer program, it should afford at least that much for a massive flood-control infrastructure program.

A flood-free National Capital Region (which after all accounts for more than one-third of the country’s GDP) makes more sense in terms of employment generation, attracting foreign investments, and long-term economic growth than cash dole-outs.

If the Republic can raise P330 billion—the amount President Macapagal-Arroyo mobilized in 2009-2010 that allowed the country to weather the global financial crisis of that period—it can raise that much to once and for all solve a national problem.

If government can give to lawmakers in the past three years P72 billion as their pork barrel fund, which at worst had been used only to fatten lawmakers’ wallets, and at best, used to build so many basketball courts, then it can raise such amounts for a nationwide infrastructure to protect our people every typhoon season.

I would like to offer a concrete proposal: Enact a law mandating Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. and the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office to set aside, say, 20 percent of their income yearly to a fund that will help build the vast infrastructure (such as hundreds of water-pumping stations and the dredging of the garbage-filled rivers) to prevent floods, provide the necessary equipment for rescue operations (such as hundreds of amphibian trucks and rescue votes as well as a chain of permanent evacuations centers), and construct bunker-type fully-provisioned evacuation centers for our people to seek real refuge in when a typhoon hits.

A concrete proposal
A law is needed for this, as we always forget the deluge and destruction of the typhoons and the rains of the monsoon season as we enter the Christmas months. Without a law, there wouldn’t be any compulsion for government agencies to allocate funds for such purposes, or even come up with a comprehensive program to build the infrastructure for our people to survive typhoons.

We have laws to confront dangers to our society. For instance we have the AIDS Prevention and Control Act in 1998, laws against smoking and pollution, and well, a law to protect us from plunderers.

But we don’t have a law to “protect” us, i.e., help our people survive that natural curse that has dogged this part of the world for centuries—typhoons.

Republic Act 10121 was passed May 2010 purportedly to strengthen the country’s Philippine Disaster Risk Reduction and Management System, which functions mainly through the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council. But the NDRRMC is merely coordinating and monitoring body for rescue and relief work in areas hit by disasters, mostly relying on the military’s equipment.

More importantly, the reduction of the impact of typhoons and floods on our people can be substantially done only through infrastructure such as massive flood-pumping systems, dikes, and bunkers for evacuation centers as well as sufficient rescue equipment and facilities. NDRRMC is not involved in such infrastructure projects. There is in fact no agency solely responsible for such work.

One case in which a country heroically overcame the curse of geography to define itself as anation is that of the Netherlands. With 70 percent of its land either below or barely a meter above sea level, and therefore regularly hit by disastrous floods, the Netherlands – which in fact means “Low Country”—created its awesome “Closure Dike” completed in 1932 that blocked off the North Sea, and then the so-called “Delta Works” complex of dikes, started in 1958 and finished in 1997, one of the largest construction efforts in human history.

We can do what the Dutch have done if we can muster the national will, and maybe that kind of historic project that would protect us from the curse of typhoons could even define our nation.