Taal Volcano

Whether a typhoon-induced flood, a fire, an earthquake or a volcanic eruption, every disaster swells the ranks of the poor and makes the already destitute even poorer.

The wealthy and relatively well-to-do can survive most disasters,  but even those Filipinos in the middle class, once their homes are destroyed, everything they own gone, and family members injured or dead, can end up in an evacuation center with both their present and future lives uncertain if not totally crushed.

The lives of tens of thousands of residents of Batangas and nearby towns  have been devastated by the now two-week long restlessness of Taal Volcano. The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PHIVOLCS) says  the volcano’s fury could culminate in a catastrophic firestorm that could affect some 300,000 more people, but  many have already lost not only their homes but also their farm animals and livelihoods.

Taal volcano has already  ravaged many families and could still do worse. But last year alone the Philippines also suffered hundreds  of deaths and the loss of billions in agriculture and infrastructure from six magnitude 6 to 6.9 earthquakes and two mega typhoons.  Thousands became poor and poorer from those catastrophes, and have added their number to the already huge total of Filipinos — estimated by the National Anti-poverty Commission (NAPC) at 21.9 million out of the 100 million plus Philippine population — who’re already  in dire poverty.

The NAPC Secretariat’s publication Reforming Philippine Anti-Poverty Policy warned in 2017 that from 50 to 60  million more people could end up poor because of such vulnerabilities as the loss of employment, the death of a breadwinner,  a serious and costly illness, or the vagaries of nature.  Some of these are preventable through sound public policy. But there is no indication that that understanding informs the thinking of either President Rodrigo Duterte, his economic and other advisers, or the rest of the overpaid civilian and military bureaucracy.

The sudden loss of a job could be prevented by putting an end to labor contracting, but that hasn’t happened despite Mr.  Duterte’s pre-election campaign promise to stop the practice. Putting a stop to extrajudicial killings (EJKs) is another means of keeping families above the poverty line, but the failed campaign against illegal drugs has instead had for primary  consequence a surge in EJKs and the impoverishment of the victims’ families.  The stark reality is that very little has been done to prevent or to just minimize the chances of  the country’s poor and less fortunate’s falling even deeper into the bottomless pit of Philippine poverty. 

But if sound public policies can help prevent the mishaps that often contribute to the further pauperization of the legions of the poor, natural disasters, on the other hand, can’t be prevented. The Philippines has the misfortune of being on the Pacific Ring of Fire. It is home to 24 active volcanoes and has numerous earthquake-prone zones including the National Capital Region. In addition,  its area of responsibility is visited annually by some 20 plus typhoons, some of which make lethal landfall.

The Philippines is ninth among those countries that are most at risk from disasters, with over 70 percent of its population likely to suffer their devastating consequences. The Philippines has also been identified as among the most likely countries to suffer the worst effects of global warming, which include more powerful typhoons’ smashing into it, and part of its landmass’ going underwater as sea levels rise.

But if these threats can’t  be prevented from happening, their impact on people’s lives and society as a whole can be mitigated. The NAPC publication thus included in its recommendations for reforming anti-poverty policy a rigorous approach to disaster mitigation, which among others could presumably include the construction of permanent evacuation centers. It’s an option that has long been discussed in public discourse.  Such centers could be made as earthquake- and flood-proof as possible. But building them will require more funds than were at the time (2017)  available for disaster mitigation.

But in another demonstration of the Duterte regime’s seeming cluelessness, indifference, and skewed sense of priorities, despite the recommendations of the NAPC paper — did any of its bureaucrats even read that document ? — it instead slashed the 2020 disaster response budget from its already low 2019 level of P20 billion to P16 billion, while bloating the budget of the Office of the President to P8.3 billion, with much of it in “intelligence” funds, over which the Commission on Audit has no oversight.

The consequences were immediately visible. The regime responded to the Taal eruption by asking the public for donations rather than immediately deploying personnel to distribute relief goods to those affected and medical teams to look after their health needs.  Local government units could provide only for their residents, but even that was not enough, and some local officials and the police even threatened to arrest those evacuees who wanted to return to their homes in the hope of securing their homes and recovering property and/or farm animals. 

In recognition of government inadequacy, it was private organizations that rushed to such makeshift  evacuation centers as schools, barangay halls and churches to provide beddings, clothing, medicine, food and water.  In the vicinities of the disaster themselves, ordinary citizens washed ash-covered vehicles, while some carinderia threw their doors open and provided food to hungry travelers fleeing the eruption.   

But once again demonstrating neither rhyme nor reason, during the emergency, government allies, stooges and accomplices disparaged the relief efforts of groups the regime has been red-baiting, among them youth, women’s and other activist organizations in a near reprise of its police and military  personnel’s preventing the same groups from coming to the aid of the survivors of the 2019 Mindanao earthquakes. Even Vice President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo came in for  an attack by one of the regime’s most notorious “fake news” purveyors, who cynically tried to  make political capital out of the disaster by claiming that Mrs. Robredo distributed “only” pan de sal and water to evacuees.

The Taal eruption was patently another opportunity for the Duterte regime to once more  do its worst. The actions, statements and other expressions of the essential stupidity of its leading bureaucrats validated the widening perception that the regime, because of its focus on the so-called “war” on drugs that has claimed thousands of suspected addicts and petty drug pushers as victims; its attacking the independent press and its critics; its lawlessness and contempt for human rights; and its penchant for dividing the nation during its most perilous moments, is as catastrophic to this country as any disaster.   

The Taal  unrest  began only on the 12th day of the new year.  With the likelihood of other disasters occurring as January passes into February,  February into March, etc.,  to the detriment of the people affected the regime will very probably be as unable to competently respond to them. Its behavior during the present crisis suggests as much, and worse.

But the Taal devastation has also brought out the best in ordinary citizens, civil society, and the activist groups the regime has been demonizing.  Their dedication, commitment, and civic spirit underscore the need for direct and united action in enabling the people of this country to cope with any calamity — including such man-made ones as the incompetent, visionless and corrupt despotism that since 2016 has inflicted one disaster after another on the people of these isles of uncertainty and peril.

Also published in BusinessWorld.

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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