Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004


@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

The Philippines was battered by four successive typhoons in the last two months. Typhoon Ketsana triggered the worst flooding in Metro Manila in the past 40 years. Typhoon Parma caused deadly landslides and mudslides in the northern provinces. Typhoons Lupit and Mirinae hampered the reconstruction efforts in the typhoon-ravaged communities of Luzon Island.

Typhoons Ketsana and Parma were the most ferocious in terms of impact on the economy and number of casualties. Ketsana submerged 80 percent of Metro Manila and nearby provinces. Parma stayed in the country for almost a week, unleashing a record rainfall in north Luzon. Ketsana and Parma affected more than 3 million individuals in the country.

The last quarter of 2009 will be remembered by many Filipinos as the period of great typhoon disasters, with Ketsana and Parma being the most memorable.

In my previous column, I emphasized the crucial role of good governance in mitigating the negative impact of climate change. I also praised the renewed sense of volunteerism among young Filipinos who devoted their time and energy in various relief and assistance centers. What are the other lessons to be culled from the storm disasters?

Ketsana and Parma showed the potential and limitation of using new media tools during natural calamities. Ketsana’s impact was more visible because bloggers wrote about their ordeal. Pictures and videos of flooded villages were quickly uploaded on the Internet. Twitterers and Facebookers regularly updated their pages about Ketsana.

Maximizing the Internet to spread information and send distress calls during Ketsana’s onslaught was made possible because there was a stable power supply in Metro Manila and the IT infrastructure in the country’s capital is relatively well-developed.

On the other hand, the power supply was cut off for many days when Parma struck the rural north. Cell phone signals were not immediately restored. There were few eyewitness stories about the storm. There were fewer blog articles, citizen videos, pictures and Twitter posts about the impact of Parma. It was the old reliable mainstream media that provided most of the information about Parma’s deadly consequences.

Public response to Ketsana once again affirmed the special status of Metro Manila in the country. Ketsana almost forced the national bureaucracy to a halt because many government offices suspended their operations. Politicians postponed their activities and glamorous social events were scrapped.

Maybe this was understandable since the storm caused massive damage in the country’s capital, but the same extraordinary attention should be shown as well when disasters hit the far-flung provinces.

There have been stronger typhoons and natural disasters in the past, but the government did not close its offices, politicians reported for work, and social events were not postponed. When Super Typhoon Reming struck the Bicol Region in 2006, Congress continued its deliberations on the proposed constitutional amendments.

Does a storm have to hit Manila first before we express alarm about the fragile state of our environment? Does a storm have to displace Manila residents first before we begin to worry about the condition of flood and storm victims?

The twin typhoon disasters also revealed the weak and ineffective quality of flood-control infrastructure in the country. In particular, Parma forced policymakers to review the dam operations throughout the country.

The heavy rainfall during Parma’s onslaught forced dam authorities in the north part of the country to release water without adequately informing residents in low-lying communities. This caused severe damage in many provinces, trapping thousands of residents in their homes and destroying millions worth of agricultural crops.

Local officials and civil society groups are blaming the dam authorities for the massive flooding, which almost wiped an entire province off the map. There is now a clamor to shut down mega-dams whose main purpose is power generation and not flood control or irrigation. To ensure public safety, Congress created a special committee to check the standard operating procedures of dams when releasing excess amounts of water during typhoons.

Ketsana and Parma also exposed the failure of health authorities to provide adequate information about the spread of various diseases linked to rising floodwaters. Two weeks ago, a Leptospirosis outbreak was declared in several provinces. Hospitals are admitting close to 400 Leptospirosis patients everyday. About 167 deaths have been confirmed already.

Doctors believe that casualties from Leptospirosis could have been minimized if preventive measures had been implemented and if flood victims had been advised to seek medical consultation the moment they detected symptoms of the rare bacterial infection. Health authorities only began to mount an aggressive information drive about the disease when the media reported about it.

Suddenly, climate change has become a key election issue. Candidates are starting to package themselves as green leaders. Ketsana and Parma are expected to remain in the public consciousness.

The underwhelming performance of government rescue and relief teams will be an important presidential election issue next year. Voters will remember the unforgettable horror images of rampaging floodwaters, mudslides and landslides. They will remember the pictures of trapped homeowners, destroyed crops, and dead bodies covered with mud. This does not bode well for administration candidates.

Related articles:

Lessons from Ondoy and Pepeng
Typhoon 101
Typhoon Milenyo
Environment refugees

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