Philippine Daily Inquirer

By Amando Doronila

The Philippines is bracing for two or three more tropical storms before the month is up, even after floods caused by more than two weeks of continuous rains devastated the island of Luzon. The floods killed several dozen people, rendered hundreds of thousands of others homeless and destroyed crops and public works. The national capital, Metro Manila, bore the brunt of the fury of the natural calamity.

The Philippines, because of a misfortune deriving from geography, sits in the path of tropical storms that ravage the islands at the average rate of 20 each year. The latest of these tempestuous visitors, Typhoon “Gener,” dumped a deluge of rainfall on Metro Manila and neighboring provinces, before unceasing monsoon rains worsened the problem and paralyzed life, business and productive activity.

The monsoon rains produced the highest volume of rainfall recorded in Metro Manila since the record-breaking downpours brought by Tropical Storm “Ondoy” in 2009, which forced more than two million people in Metro Manila to evacuate to safety and turned Marikina Valley into a huge “lake of death,” where scores of residents in new middle-class development housing drowned in swift-rising floodwaters. The amount of rain that fell on Metro Manila from Aug. 6 to 8 reached 1,007 millimeters, nearly twice the estimated accumulated rainfall for August projected by Pagasa, the weather bureau, which was 540 mm. Despite modern weather forecasting instruments and its best efforts, Pagasa’s forecasts have at best been erratic, and Pagasa has received much flak, often undeserved because of the unpredictability of capricious weather.

Despite the exposure of the Philippines to storms and the southwest monsoon, Philippine governments, past and present, have failed to come up with defensive programs and mechanisms to prevent the loss of lives, crops and property—except for the finger-pointing and the blame game that inevitably follow the exit of typhoons. The toll and costs are counted, and rehabilitation follows—until the next typhoon barges in. There is a debate going on over the issue of whether or not the flooding that comes with storms are man-made—that is, structures built by the private sector are responsible for the flooding. Some groups or experts who have made serious studies about the effects on flooding of structures in urban development have pinpointed certain developments.

For example, an academic journal published in Australia, World Politics Review, ran an article highlighting Philippine floods in relation to fast urbanization. The article, written by Catherine Cheney in the Aug. 2 issue of the Review, is based on a paper by Edward Blakely, honorary professor of urban policy at the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre and a disaster-recovery expert who led recovery management for New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. According to Blakely, the devastation caused by these floods results not only from the amount of rainfall, but also from a lack of planning, coordination and enforcement in terms of urbanization.

The deadly floods in the Philippine capital, he said, are the latest in a series of flooding-related disasters to strike the region. Last month, the heaviest rainfall to hit Beijing in decades forced the evacuation of 650,000 people from their homes, while three months of heavy rains in Bangkok last year claimed at least 500 lives.

“These floods are the result of overbuilding and extending into farm and marsh areas,” Blakely said. “There is an issue here of responsible building,” adding that developers “were building on very fragile marshlands and covering them up with a bit of cement and hoping for the best.”

Over the past three months, floods have devastated three major capital cities: Taipei, Beijing and Manila. “The death toll in Asia is always so huge in comparison to other places because of the dense population and size of the population in urban areas,” he said. “So this is a real issue for governments in those countries, because they affect such a large portion of the population.”