What just happened?

AS A MATTER OF FACT - Sara Soliven De Guzman (The Philippine Star) - November 16, 2020 - 12:00am

The great floods of Rizal, Marikina, Pasig, Navotas, Bulacan, Nueva Ecija, Pampanga, Pangasinan, Isabela, Camarines Norte and Bicol were not just caused by Typhoon Ulysses. It was clearly a combination of the rainfall, the opening and management of dams, overflowing of polluted and non-dredged rivers and the deterioration of our environment, particularly erosion due to illegal logging, mining and quarrying. Majority of the water did not come from the rainfall. They were brought about by man-made disasters causing massive mudslides.

Today, Marikina is still under water. Muddy waters that flowed into the city and surrounding areas came from the mountains and rivers. Mayor Marci Teodoro believes that the water was caused by the opening of the dams. Yes, this may have contributed to the flood, not to mention the unfinished piping works of the dams. But couldn’t the muddy waters have also been caused by the deterioration of the Marikina watershed as warned by the late Gina Lopez? Didn’t Gina Lopez call for the reforestation of this denuded watershed? Didn’t she even predict that “as long as there is quarrying there and the Marikina Watershed is denuded, the Pasig River water will be brown! And it will become more and more shallow and it will cause flooding in Metro Manila!”

What about the rest of Luzon? Cagayan Valley is also under muddy brown water. Isn’t there a lot of illegal mining and quarrying over there? Aside from the release of water from Magat Dam, the Cagayan River also gave in.

So, after all these massive environmental disasters, why isn’t the Department of Environment and Natural Resources speaking? Why are they keeping mum about everything?

Speaking about dams, how many released water during the typhoon? Six dams in Luzon released water last week and continue to release without warning the LGUs and the people. Sanamagan! Magat Dam in Cagayan Valley is one of the largest dams in the country; Angat and Ipo Dams in Bulacan and Pampanga, La Mesa Dam in Quezon City, Ambuklao and Binga Dams in Benguet. Local mayors and governors could not fathom how the typhoon alone could cause the floods. As the rains began to fall, the rivers suddenly overflowed, flooding the cities and provinces.

Where did the water come from? The volume of rainfall was not high enough to cause the flooding. The management groups of the different dams did not warn nor coordinate with LGUs before releasing the water from the dams. They said that they needed to release the water because overflowing of dams may cause more problems. The problem is that they did not consider the lives of human beings at stake.

Typhoon Ulysses had maximum sustained winds of 155 km/h with death toll of 40 and still rising and a total damage worth P5 billion so far. Typhoon Quinta had maximum sustained winds of 155 km/h with 27 dead and a total damage worth P4.22 billion. Typhoon Rolly had maximum sustained winds of 220 km/h with 25 dead and a total damage worth P17.9 billion.

Ulysses left with over P5 billion worth of damage to infrastructure and agriculture. The Department of Agriculture counted P969.8 million worth of damaged crops and assets. The typhoon has affected 40,519 farmers and 51, 241 hectares of agricultural areas in Ilocos Region, Cagayan Valley, Central Luzon, Cordillera Administrative Region, CALABARZON and Bicol Region. The Department of Public Works and Highways reported losses of infrastructure worth P4.254 billion. Department of Education reported damage to schools in typhoon-hit areas amounting to P800 million.

Were we prepared? On the surface we “looked” prepared. But in reality, we weren’t at all! Government’s mindset must change. It is very clear that by protecting our environment and respecting proper zoning and construction measures, not to mention more warning supported by access to hazard maps made available to the public, we will be able to protect the people. For now, we will continue to experience the wrath of nature until man-made exploitation is stopped.

*      *      *

When President Duterte spoke at the 37th Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit via video conference last week, he cited the impact of tropical cyclones Rolly and Ulysses in the Philippines as consequences of climate change. He called for cooperation in combating them. He said, “We must therefore further enhance our cooperation on disaster risk reduction management to reinforce our capacities, both at the national and regional levels. More importantly, we must amplify our voices to demand climate justice from those most responsible for this existential challenge we face today.”

Yes, climate change may be a factor, but the President must first rule out environmental exploitation, inefficiency and corruption. I am pretty sure as the President was talking the other ASEAN leaders were looking at our problem beyond climate change. The people can see and know what is truly happening to our devastated country. I hope the researchers and scriptwriters of the President do a better job than make him look funny in the international scene.

Anyway, knowing that the Philippines is a calamity prone area, why did the President not fight to maintain the budget of the National Calamity Fund? Why did he allow the budget to be cut down? With a small amount placed in the Calamity Fund, how can we save lives from natural disasters?

The Calamity Fund refers to the allocation for the National Disaster and Risk Reduction Management Council from the annual General Appropriations Act or the national budget. During the deliberations of the 2020 national budget last year, Congress reduced NDRRMC’s budget allocation to only P16 billion, a P4-billion cut from Duterte’s initial proposal of P20 billion. In its January 2020 report, think tank IBON Foundation reported that the administration also slashed the calamity funds in 2017. “The NDRRMC budget was cut by more than half (P23 billion) to just P15.8 billion in 2017 from P38.9 billion in 2016 under the Aquino administration,” the report read.

Even natural landforms which mitigate typhoons are also being undermined by the Duterte administration. For instance, the Sierra Madre mountain ranges in eastern Luzon that span 540 kilometers and act as a barrier against typhoons coming from the Pacific. In 2008, the mountain ranges weakened a powerful typhoon (Typhoon Ompong) as it crashed onto the land formation and prevented two devastating typhoons in 2016 – Typhoon Sarika and Typhoon Haima.

Despite this, the Duterte government is planning to carve out large sections of the natural land formation to build the Kaliwa Dam. The multimillion-dollar dam project has been in the works since the era of president Ferdinand Marcos and after the Duterte administration secured a $238-million loan from China, the project has inched closer to fruition.

The government has endorsed the project to improve water supply to Metro Manila. But it has also ignored the warnings from the scientific community that undertaking such a large-scale infrastructure project will almost certainly ruin the Sierra Madre mountain ranges.

So, what are we doing to our country? Shouldn’t government strengthen measures to reduce risks, manage calamities and enhance recovery efforts instead of continuing to ruin it to pieces? Let us get our act together, shall we?

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