Saturday, January 14, 2012

Calamity Prone

Philippine president Benigno Aquino III declared a state of "national calamity" after heavy rains from tropical storm "Sendong" left more than a thousand people dead and at least as many missing just a few days before Christmas. He declared that the state of calamity was to last for sixty days, but if he wanted to tell the truth about his beleaguered country (1), he should've extended it "in perpetuity".

Experts try to explain such disasters by pointing out that the Philippines endures an average of ten big tropical storms and cyclones every year. But that doesn't account for the routinely catastrophic scale of the damage the storms inflict on the Philippines, since the U.S. east coast sees several large storms as well, but the cost of lives and property damage is comparably minimal.

In the days after the flash floods in Mindanao, I heard pundits on Filipino TV talking about the "disaster-prone" areas in the country, suggesting that there are actually specific areas, such as river basins, that are prone to disasters like floods and landslides. But there are places like that everywhere in the world. Many major cities are situated on river basins. The Thai capitol, Bangkok, recently experienced its worst flooding in more than fifty years. The floods weren't restricted to one region, nor were they, despite extremely heavy rainfall, what caused the calamity in Mindanao.

When a major flood hits the U.S. or Europe, there is much property loss but comparably little loss of life. The huge flash floods in Mindanao took place in the middle of the night when people were asleep in their beds. The Philippine agency responsible for alerting citizens of impending disasters insisted that they provided sufficient warning to the residents of the region. What they didn't point out was what the warning consisted of and what form it took. Living in a remote province myself, in which there is only one radio station and where the two national TV networks are off the air at night, I wonder what, if any, warning would arrive here in time to save people's lives in a disaster.

Communications is just one part of a country's infrastructure. After the disaster, local officials were blaming "illegal logging" for the severity of the floods. But these disasters are practically self-inflicted, since infrastructure development in the poorer provinces of the Philippines is notoriously neglected. Where there is highway or bridge construction, corruption ensures that the money initially provided for the construction gets siphoned off: contractors pass the job on to sub-contractors, and the resulting roads and bridges are washed away every few years. Nothing gets fixed here until it breaks.

As I wrote in May 2010, Filipinos seem to have a special relationship with their surroundings. A road sign can be found everywhere, at particular places along a highway, that reads "Accident Prone Area". At first glance, one's first reaction to the sign is that it isn't areas that are accident prone - it's people. But Filipinos evidently don't see it that way. If accidents occur in certain places more often than elsewhere, the places themselves are partly responsible. The sign is a warning to everyone who drives into the area to be careful, lest they fall prey to whatever is causing all the accidents. It reminds me of an insurance law in Japan that states when your car is rear-ended, you are partially responsible (I think 15% was the percentage), since the accident wouldn't have occurred if your car hadn't been there.

I wouldn't be surprised if soon there will be signs posted in special areas in these islands that read Disaster Prone Area. They won't save lives, but they will give the local governments an excuse not to spend another peso on infrastructure.

(1) One example of the lack of truth-telling is the official unemployment rate of 6.4% (as of October 2011). Forgetting that 11 million Filipinos are working overseas, and that most of the women are too busy caring for their children to even consider getting a job, no one who has visited this country for a few days could possibly estimate unemployment at anything less than 30%.

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