It’s a convenient excuse government big shots trot out during disasters to placate those who can’t understand why they’re getting no relief from hunger, thirst and cold, whose very lives are under threat during earthquakes, fires, mudslides and floods, or who have actually seen their children, parents and other kin drown in flood waters or burn in a house on fire. Mostly these bosses blame God, declaring that against natural disasters mere human beings contend in vain.

The September 27-28 floods and the misery they once more subjected Filipinos was one more occasion for the same excuse. This time, however, the by now predictable defense was accompanied by the argument, a tad more sophisticated, that global warming is to blame and not the government officials in this part of the planet.

Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Lito Atienza was most adept in exculpating himself and fellow officials from blame for the deaths and suffering that usually accompany disasters in the Philippines, although for sheer cluelessness the Department of Defense’s Gilbert Teodoro should probably get first prize.

It’s global warming, said Atienza, who declared that the country should be prepared for typhoons worse than Ondoy and rains more torrential than the 24-hour deluge that caused rivers to jump their banks and inundated vast areas of metro Manila, Marikina, Cainta and surrounding areas. “We should be prepared,” said Atienza.

Who’s the “we” that should be doing the preparing, and which we have every right to assume has been preparing, since it has the mandate as well as the means both actual and potential to do so, such as improving weather prediction, constructing and rehabilitating dams and levees, training rescuers and acquiring needed rescue equipment, and most of all putting in place an environmental regulation program to mitigate the impact of climate change?

The government, that’s who, but rather than admit the obvious — that the “we” as in government, had not been prepared for Ondoy — Atienza proceeded instead to blame the citizenry for throwing their garbage into rivers and esteros as well as for its other environmentally disastrous habits.

Atienza is right about climate change. Like the link between cancer and tobacco, it is now fairly well established that it’s happening, despite the idiotic effort of the United States government during the watch of George W. Bush to mock the findings of scores of scientists which showed that global temperatures were rising as a result of such human activities as unregulated manufacturing that result in greenhouse emissions, and driving vehicles powered by polluting and inefficient internal combustion engines.

Among the indicators of a warming planet are heat waves and periods of unusually warm weather; ocean warming; sea-level rise; coastal flooding; glaciers melting; and Arctic and Antarctic warming. These indicators have been noted since nearly a decade ago.
Among the consequences of global warming, some predicted, but others actually happening, are the spread of diseases once limited to tropical areas into temperate zones;
earlier spring arrival in temperate zones; plant and animal range shifts and population changes; coral reef bleaching; heavy snowfalls in temperate zones; torrential rains and flooding in tropical zones; and droughts and fires. In its assessment, made as early as 2001, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that, “an increasing body of observations gives a collective picture of a warming world and other changes in the climate system.” (The Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change is the leading body for the assessment of climate change and was established by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) to “provide the world with a clear scientific view on the current state of climate change and its potential environmental and socio-economic consequences.”)

The impact on populations has been as predicted. The citizens of Pacific island countries only a few meters above sea level have in fact seen the sea creeping up the beaches and right into their front yards, as a result of which many have migrated to other countries. Hurricanes — Katrina, which struck the United States in 2007 has been frequently cited — have become stronger, as have typhoons (as hurricanes are known in the tropics).

The Philippines has had more than a taste of super-typhoons, among them Reming and Milenyo, which struck the Philippines in 2006 with over 200 kilometer per hour winds. Two other super-typhoons hit the Philippines that same year, their coming one after another being widely and accurately attributed to global warming. So it’s not as if the need to be prepared hasn’t been obvious since at least three years ago.

And yet the government of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (most especially including its environment secretaries) has not developed any coherent and comprehensive strategy to deal with such consequences of global warming as super-typhoons, in which category typhoon Onyong properly belongs because of the rains it brought. It’s his boss Atienza should be talking to about preparedness, because it’s obvious that the government of which he is a part has done nothing in that department except to make the usual excuses about there being not enough equipment and personnel — and blaming the victims themselves.

As far as the victims are concerned, while it may be true that too many Filipinos are absolutely brain-dead about proper garbage disposal, as a result of which waterways are clogged with their refuse, the government hasn’t done anything about educating them either, because its officials are focused on, among others, staying in power and grabbing what they can.

And is equipment really that expensive and hard to purchase — so hard that an archipelagic country visited by some 20 typhoons yearly has a disaster agency, the National Disaster Coordinating Council (it coordinates disasters), that has fewer rubber boats than Marikina City?

Conclusion: what we have in the officialdom of a country subject to earthquakes, floods, mudslides, typhoons and fires is a culture of incompetence complicated by a total lack of care for the millions of Filipinos who annually die, lose their kin, and/or go through incredible suffering for no other reason than the lack of the preparedness Atienza said “we” should be in the middle of. This makes the Philippines a truly authentic disaster zone — not because of nature or God, but because of the kind of officialdom that’s been inflicted on it.


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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