IF the Aquino III administration ignored warnings from the environmental and science communities long before “Sendong” that a disaster was coming in Mindanao, it wouldn’t be any more unique than past administrations.

From 1992 to 2001 some 6,000,000 Filipinos were killed or injured by various disasters, whether natural or man-made, making it, says the International Committee of the Red Cross, the fourth most disaster and accident-prone country in the world after China, India and Iran.

During that ten-year period, the country experienced earthquakes, floods, and landslides yearly, as well as several volcanic eruptions. In every instance, the casualties were high enough to merit shock both at home and abroad, as is currently happening in the wake of the “Sendong” casualties, which have been described as unprecedented in a decade and unequalled anywhere else. That storm killed more than 1,200 people, while some 2,000 more are missing.

Whether natural (earthquakes, floods, landslides, volcanic eruptions) or man-made (plane crashes, sea mishaps, fires, motoring accidents), disasters are among the measures of the capacity of governments to protect their citizens. The frequency and intensity of man-made catastrophes is a gauge of how ably a government has prevented them or kept casualties low. But from the way both types of disasters keep recurring in the Philippines with even more frequency and increasing devastation, it seems that every New Year is in these parts likely to be no better than the old, and even worse.

The worst peacetime sea disaster in history — the collision between the MV Dona Paz with an oil tanker in December 1987 that killed over 4,000 people — occurred in Philippine seas between Philippine vessels. And yet, in that and other maritime accidents for which the Philippines has gained international notoriety, the causes have been known for decades. Among them are ship overloading, inadequately or badly trained mariners, poor compliance with safety standards on the part of the vessels, and indifferent implementation of those standards by the Philippine Coast Guard.

All are eminently correctable, but to this day have not been remedied. Although the Dona Paz disaster was followed by the usual hand-wringing and finger-pointing, and government promises to prevent future disasters, it was followed a scant year later, in 1988, by the sinking of the MV Dona Marilyn, which claimed some 250 lives.

The Philippines has also been the site of some of the worst bus accidents in the world. As in the sinking of Philippine ships, the causes of bus and other land transport accidents are well known, among them poor enforcement of the licensing process, a graft-ridden franchising system, the commission basis on which bus drivers are paid that makes them work long hours to the point of exhaustion, and drug and alcohol use among drivers. Again causes eminently correctable, but problems hardly addressed to prevent future accidents.

Natural disasters cannot be prevented, on the other hand. Some, not all (an earthquake, for instance; only the probability of one can be anticipated), can only be predicted, but their impact could nevertheless be minimized or mitigated. Typhoons and tsunamis may be unstoppable, but human intervention in the form of warning systems and moving citizens at risk can get people out of their paths. The impact of such disasters can also be mitigated in the long term through sound public policy, such as, for example, the regulation of mining and logging, among other environmental initiatives.

Local governments have been blamed for such disasters as the flood and landslide that devastated Ormoc, Leyte, in 1991 which claimed 6,000 lives. They’re being blamed now for the Iligan and Cagayan de Oro disasters– and rightly so, since before natural disasters elected officials can do more than just throw up their hands.

But even more accountable is the national government, and not only the Aquino III administration, but all administrations from that of Ferdinand Marcos to Corazon Aquino’s, to that of Fidel Ramos to Joseph Estrada’s and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s.

Only the national government can put together the national policies that can transcend local inefficiency and local interests. When Marcos was in power all of 40 years ago, global warming was no more than a whispered possibility. But the Marcos government was nevertheless confronted with the Luzon-wide floods of 1972, which it even used to justify the declaration of martial law in September that year. Armed with absolute power, Marcos could have put in place the beginnings of a State policy to address the problem of illegal logging which had already destroyed much of the country’s rain forests. But he did not, among other reasons because logging interests were among his allies.

The problem hardly merited the attention of the Corazon Aquino administration, which, for all its proclaimed good intentions, had no policy of government based on a coherent critique or assessment of the state of the nation, and was focused almost solely on restoring the flawed democracy the Philippines had prior to 1972, and on fending off numerous coup attempts. The Ramos government was worse, its aggressive policy of economic liberalization and privatization leading naturally to the exploitation of the country’s natural resources with only token government regulation. As for Estrada’s…

The worst post-Marcos administration, and not only for the environment, was Macapagal- Arroyo’s, during whose foul watch logging continued with a vengeance and the environment was savaged by the consequences of a mining law that turned the entire country into a free-fire mining zone while Mrs. Arroyo focused on staying in power.

As for the Aquino III administration, its excuse for not heeding the warning of the environmental and science communities about a disaster in the making in the south is its focus on rooting out the corruption that metastasized throughout the political system during the Arroyo regime. And yet, the corruption that has attended the granting of logging permits for decades is as relevant to that effort as such issues as midnight appointments and kickback-ridden government contracts.

Indiscriminate and illegal logging was blamed for the 1991 Ormoc disaster and is equally being blamed for the Iligan and Cagayan de Oro holocaust today, demonstrating that no deaths have been numerous enough to move any Philippine administration to do anything over the last 20 years, and to keep the loggers amply represented in government from the profits they make out of turning entire forests into matchsticks.

The Aquino administration has the opportunity to craft the policies that will enable the country to better cope with natural disasters that the environmental and science communities have been proposing for years, rather than to focus merely on the band-aid relief and relocation policies it is currently implementing. It can also better police and reform the various systems that regulate air, sea and land transportation to start with, to prevent, or at least minimize the impact of, man-made disasters. Will it seize the opportunity to do better than past administrations? Or will it, like its ineffectual predecessors, beguile us too with words, words, words once it’s done blaming the victims — as if they had options other than to live on sandbars and riverbanks and in the shadows of denuded hills–for not getting out of harm’s way and losing their homes, their families and their lives?


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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