After a short rainfall or two, the road that led to my partner M’s hometown just outside Manila would turn into a long stretch of potholes. Then a campaign and much fanfare, and the potholes would be “fixed” by the contractor who offered the biggest bribe. Whatever watered-down crap they used as filling would barely hold until the next rainy season, and the potholes were back. Then we got to do it all over again.
Unfortunately, this patch-over strategy describes how government officials deal with natural disasters as well. As I write this, the Philippines is still reeling from Typhoon Frank (Fengsheng). Large swaths of the Western Visayas are underwater, with some parts virtually undistinguishable from the ocean. Over 200 people are dead, more than a hundred thousand are displaced. And at least 700 passengers of a capsized ferry are still missing.
The thing is, we have storms like this every year. The country knows they’re coming. And yet, our government is never ready.
In 2006, more than 1,000 people died in Typhoon Durian, including hundreds whose bodies were torn apart in a rain-triggered landslide. Two years earlier, similar floods and landslides triggered by Typhoon Yoyong killed more than 1,000 people. After Typhoon Durian, President Gloria Arroyo spoke of the need to plan for such disasters, saying, “We must not leave things to fatal luck when we can develop the tools to prevent harm.”
These tragedies are not “fatal luck.” These tragedies are criminal neglect.
When the rains come, when disasters strike, our government relies on set strategies. They blame other parties, like the ferry operators. They form task forces to discuss “disaster management.” And yet, disaster management programs have never addressed the deforestation wrought by mining and illegal logging operations – the chief causes of the landslides.
And most of all, officials count on forgetting. Media will be all over stories such as the sunken ferry boat Princess of the Stars. We will see footage of grief-stricken family members, of the boat’s upturned hull sticking out from the water. There will be a special prayer from the pope. There will be news of a new task force, and photo-ops of officials in refugee centers passing out bags of rice.
Then most Filipinos will have to get back to the daily tasks of making ends meet, and these images will fade. Government officials will unveil the task force findings and unroll flashy initiatives. Like the “Ramdam na Ramdam” and the Metro Gwapo campaigns, which focus on creating the appearance of progress rather than addressing the roots of social problems. Most Filipinos are engaged in the daily struggles of living, and their anger will have to be channeled elsewhere.
In this way, government officials are able to buy time, and the road will be smooth for a while. At least until the coming rains uncover the same old potholes.