NEARLY 2,500 people — 2,360 to be exact — died in 2012 in natural disasters in the Philippines, says the non-governmental Citizens Disaster Response Center (CDRC), putting it ahead of all other countries in the world including China, which was second with 771 deaths.

But because “only” 12 million Filipinos were affected last year by typhoons, landslides, flooding and those other rainy-season disasters Filipino flesh is heir to, while some 43 million were affected in China, the Philippines was only second to that country as far as how many people were displaced, lost their belongings, had their homes damaged, and/or suffered various economic losses because of crops destroyed or jobs lost, among others.

Being ahead of the pack in terms of how many people died in disasters is still bad news. But the good news is that the local governments of the most disaster-prone areas in the Philippines all claim that they’re more prepared for the rainy season this year, with some of them claiming possession of “high- tech” equipment, among them rubber boats whose motors actually work, and even scuba diving gear — the better, so it’s said, for rescue operations to succeed in terms of fewer casualties.

But while some local governments have willy-nilly become expert in disaster response by rescuing stranded people, providing citizens in places isolated by destroyed infrastructure and floods with relief goods, and putting others in evacuation centers, disaster management in the Philippines is still after-the-fact rather than prevention. That, say certain officials like Cabinet Secretary Jose Rene Almendras, requires such a huge effort that, if we read between the lines, Almendras seemed to be saying it is impossible or next to impossible to achieve.

Almendras was responding to the media’s questions on why Monday’s floods occurred, immobilizing parts of metro Manila when traffic came to a standstill in its major thoroughfares, despite the Metro Manila Development Authority’s press releases during the summer months that it was dredging the waterways, making sure its pumping stations were working, and was otherwise prepared for the rainy season.

Almendras didn’t cast blame on the MMDA, and neither did he blame the Department of Public Works for its unfinished “road rehabilitation,” kickback-driven projects all over metropolitan Manila. They’re all in it together, after all. Instead he cast a wider net, blaming the informal settlers (known among the politically incorrect as squatters) who’ve erected shanties along esteros, rivers and other waterways, into which they toss household garbage as well as bodily ordure.

These are the people who are, ironically, the first victims of the floods they help make inevitable, whose behavior, characterized by the total absence of civic responsibility or even some sense of social duty, is enough to disabuse the minds of the firmest believers in the essential goodness of humanity.

That being said, however, the fact is that the destructive individualism that in the cities morph from the feudal experience in the benighted countryside is learned behavior, instilled and encouraged by experience in the urban jungle to which most slum dwellers have migrated to escape the crippling poverty of the provinces. They find out soon enough, and they transmit that knowledge in deeds if not in words to their legions of usually undernourished, diseased and feral children, that in metro Manila as in the provinces, its every man and woman for him/herself, and the hell with other people, because no one’s going to look after you except yourself, certainly not the government, the agencies of which seem to have been perpetually caught in a graft-induced web of creative inefficiency.

Thus did the reputedly second most corrupt government agency of all, the Department of Public Works, explain away its failure to complete all of its 500- plus “road rehabilitation” projects by citing the mid-term elections, during which public works projects are prohibited. But it did not say why it was unable to anticipate the established fact that an election was coming, and to consequently adjust its timetable.

In addition to the traffic mess these eternally-pending projects were already creating during the last weeks of summer, the advent of the rainy season and the opening of classes at all levels — and it doesn’t require a PhD or even half a brain to realize this — multiplied the horrors of living in a place that’s been described as the gates of hell, for, among other reasons, its horrendous traffic jams, of which the entire world had a monumental example last Monday evening.

That DPWH excuse about the elections was last week’s. By Tuesday the agency was blaming the MMDA, which, it claimed, had failed to release permits for several dozen of its road rehabilitation projects. MMDA denied it, and instead blamed the persistence of garbage in the waterways and on the streets, as well as the deficiencies in its pumping stations — meaning, it was the citizens of this land and inadequate funding that are to blame for Monday’s floods.

Let’s admit that not only do too many people throw their garbage into the waterways, on the streets, and even into MMDA pumping stations; almost every attempt to encourage garbage segregation has also failed. The indifference of most citizens to anything except those issues that directly concern them has most of all made practically the entire country — there were also floods in Mindanao this week — a disaster area not only during the rainy season but the rest of the year, which is more than evident in the fish kills and droughts of summer.

But shouldn’t all of these, meaning the indiscipline, lack of civic sense, and indifference of a benighted citizenry factor into national government calculations of how to deal with disasters, instead of its leaving it to local governments to cope with floods and landslides? Is there a national disaster policy in the first place, through which local capacity can be coordinated with national initiatives?

The ”Philippine Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act of 2010″, or RA 101211, declares it State policy to, among others, address “the root causes of (Philippine) vulnerabilities to disasters.”

The same Act mandates the creation of a “National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Plan (NDRRMP)… to strengthen the capacity of the national government and the local government units (LGUs), together with partner stakeholders, to build the disaster resilience of communities… institutionalize arrangements and measures for reducing disaster risks, including projected climate risks, and enhancing disaster preparedness… at all levels.”

The renaming of the National Disaster Management Council into the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council was apparently one of the results of the passage of the Act. What’s disturbing, however, is that two years after the Act was passed, the country still managed to lead all other countries in the world in the number of deaths it suffered from the disasters that affected 12 million people.

Judging by the statements of some of the most responsible officials of the Aquino administration, and the latter’s panicky, “what happened?” reaction to the Monday floods, no one seems to have a clue either as to where the Plan is going. What that means is that the disaster known as the Philippines is going to define the lives of the Filipino millions this year and in who knows how many more years to come.


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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