Sunday, October 25, 2009

Ondoy: The morning after

Super typhoons Ondoy and Pepeng have wrought havoc in the Philippines, as natural disasters around the globe have gone up due to climate change. Relief and rehabilitation efforts become doubly difficult (or will be even much more problematic when planning responses to future natural disasters) because of the enormity of the damage caused to both human life and the country’s economy. Right now, Filipinos here in Toronto have opened up their hearts to show they care for the plight of all those folks who suffered most from the flooding caused by the typhoons.

But as natural disasters come and visit our country with impunity, charity alone is an insufficient response. Although this wakes us up and even unites many of us, we cannot make nature’s havoc as the necessary impetus to gather ourselves together. Giving your support to organizations and other movements that call for, say, curbing gas emissions to the atmosphere, is as powerful as opening up your wallets.

Charity helps during times of calamity and those who show their generosity should be commended, and rightly so. However, we should not allow acts of charity to delude us into thinking they are the final solution. Everyone loves a cheerful giver but so much of giving can only accomplish very little.

As natural disasters continue to devastate the Philippines at almost predictable seasonal intervals, it’s also about time that the government and its planners focus beyond the tasks of rescue, recovery, relief and rehabilitation. All that these tasks will accomplish is simply to mitigate the effects of these disasters, and mitigation usually is just short term. We need to focus more on ecology, which becomes policy only when government responsibility becomes undeniable.

The environmental issues that we face today are mainly due to human activities. We must begin with the premise that we are responsible for all the anthropogenic effects of human activities on the natural environment. Much of the current global greenhouse emissions originated from the developed countries. According to the World Resources Institute (WRI), industrialized countries are the biggest polluters. Since the richer countries have been industrializing and emitting climate changing pollution for many centuries, the greenhouse gases they produce tend to accumulate and remain in the atmosphere for many decades. Thus, the environmental consequences of the policies of industrialized nations have had a large detrimental and costly effect on developing countries – especially poor countries who are already burdened with debt and poverty.

Apart from dramatic changes in climatic conditions that partly explain why we’re having so many natural disasters today, years of foreign exploitation of our forests and mountains have also weakened our natural defences against disasters. Foreign mining of our natural resources for gold, copper, iron and other minerals has stripped bare our mountain ranges while unabated logging has wiped precious rainforests. In addition, the construction of dams which were originally designed to control floods and for energy projects using our tributary systems benefited primarily the foreign investors, dam builders, international funding agencies and private companies.

Take the case of the San Roque Multipurpose Dam in San Manuel, Pangasinan. The San Roque Dam is located along the Agno River, known as the ”river of dreams,” together with the Ambuklao Dam and Binga Dam. These dams have been blamed for the massive flooding in Central Luzon caused by Typhoon Pepeng. Officials of the San Roque Dam, according to some reports, have delayed the release of excess water to maximize their profit.

Dr. Giovanni Tapang, chairman of Agham, a progressive Filipino scientist group, said that the recent floodings proved that the dams were not really designed to control floods. It was obvious, according to Dr. Tapang, that the San Roque Dam prioritized their revenues and compromised the lives and livelihood of the people living in the lowlands. “These dams just bring profit to their proponents and more harm than benefit to the people,” he added.

Dr. Tapang said that “as long as the dams remain, it is likely that similar tragedies will occur in the future as it has done in the past.”

The Philippines has a history of opposition against the construction of dams because of their destructive effects on the communities around them. Several of those who opposed the construction of dams have been killed as a result. The most prominent of these anti-dam protesters was Macli-ing Dulag, a leader of the Kalinga tribe of the Cordilleras, who is widely remembered for leading the anti-Chico Dam campaign in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Dulag forged bodongs (peace pacts) between warring tribes and unified them against the World Bank-funded Chico Dam project. The Marcos government even tried to bribe him several times in exchange for giving up his opposition against the proposed dam. Macli-ingDulag was killed on April 24, 1980, when army soldiers opened fire on his hut, killing him on the spot. In killing Dulag, the military hoped to silence the opposition to the Chico Dam project, which never happened.

Instead, Dulag’s death only heightened and broadened the opposition against the proposed dam, the protests got international coverage and the Marcos government was forced to abandon the project. Other leaders of the opposition against the construction of dams, like Nicanor delos Santos against the Kaliwa-Kanan Dam (or Laiban Dam) and Jose Doton of the San Roque Multipurpose Project were either shot to death or extra-judicially executed. The recent floods that inundated Northern and Central Luzon have proven that these leaders were right all along in opposing the construction of large dams in their respective communities.

Due to widespread anti-dam protests in the developing countries, the World Bank and the World Conservation Union had to create the World Commission on Dams (WCD) in May 1998. WCD was tasked to study the environmental impact of large dams as development projects and analyze alternative means of developing energy resources. It found that large dams had destructive effects on the environment that are difficult to reverse, and for the most part, these large dams did not succeed in developing their promised benefits such as providing cheap energy.

What then must we do after Ondoy and Pepeng?

Cleaning up the typhoons’ mess is not enough. Both government and the private and civic sectors need to act jointly to prevent flooding in the future. It’s not only effective early warning systems of storms and floods that we need. The denudation of the Marikina watershed, for instance, made the water flow faster downhill to the towns and cities of Metro Manila. One of the many measures the Philippine government must do now, together with the local government units of the cities and towns in Metro Manila, is to reforest the foot of the Sierra Madre mountain range and to declog the creeks that have been blocked by debris and solid waste. In the case of Metro Manila, overcrowding due to corporate fishpens, shanties, polluted waterways, improper planning of land use, and indiscriminate private property development around Laguna de Bay and the Napindan estuary must be addressed by the government before another tragedy such as Ondoy strikes again.

The abilities of the two water concessionaires in Metro Manila – Manila Water and Maynilad – need also to be strengthened insofar as collecting and treating waste water. With assistance from the Asian Development Bank, each concessionaire has planned to invest one billion dollars over the next 15 years. To realize this huge infrastructure, all 17 local governments in Metro Manila should put their act together.

Over all, the national government must go beyond mitigating the effects of climate change and adapting measures for affected communities, such as the construction of infrastructures like landslide-protection, flood-control, and riverbank-stabilization systems.

It is also about time to revisit the government’s policy of constructing large dams to provide for the country’s energy needs. The aftermath of the recent natural disasters only proves that we can no longer disregard the environmental and social costs of building and maintaining large dams at the expense of ignoring other sources of energy.

There are alternative sources of energy such as bio-mass-powered systems that use organic materials like animal manure and coconut husks. There are also other possible sources like micro-hydropower systems or small systems using energy from moving water and turbines or waterwheels to convert the energy of moving water into mechanical energy, which could be more appropriate for areas with numerous and large rivers. Solar-powered systems, which use photovoltaic cells and wind-powered systems are also possible sources of energy.

Ignoring these options and choosing instead to build and maintain large dams is not the only way to bring about development. We cannot justify development by any means possible, especially if it destroys our ecosystem.

The People’s Declarations Against Large Dams, issued in March 25, 2001 in Baguio City, best summed up our country’s experience with large dams:

“From the laying of the dam cornerstones to the turning of the dam turbines, profits flowed into the pockets of foreign energy corporations and their local partners, international funding agencies and the multi-lateral bureaucracy. Meanwhile, the flow of silt into the productive fields and the destruction of ecosystems, painful experiences of relocation and resettlement, testimonies of broken government promises on compensation, the non-delivery of social services to communities made survival more difficult for the already marginalized sectors of society. The needs of the people were drowned by the greed for profit.”

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